Saturday July 20, 2013

Someone tried to buy me today. Two people, actually.

I wonder how many camels I would cost. I like to think more than five although I may be setting my sights too high.

But no need to worry. These disturbing and slightly flattering proposals did not happen in our treasured state of Vermont. I am writing from a rooftop in Istanbul, Turkey. The Aya Sofia Mosque stands proudly behind me as the Blue Mosque glows to my right. The Asian portion of Istanbul illuminates the sky above my computer screen as a gentle breeze drifts off the nearby coast of the Marmara Sea.

Turkey has greeted me with three truths. Number one: Our planet is beautiful, and Turkey is no exception. I am taken by this country.

Hearing five simultaneous calls to prayer is a sacred experience. The sound that bellows from thousand-year-old minarets consumes the air and makes me feel like as long as those prayers ring out, nothing can touch me.

The food makes my stomach growl with happiness. A few days ago I was excited to go to sleep for the sole purpose of passing as much time as possible until breakfast.

But most of all, and I think most importantly, the Turkish people have restored my faith in the goodness of humanity. I have been so moved by people’s friendliness and kindness. I have never been greeted so warmly in a foreign country. Actually, I have never been greeted so warmly in any country.

In fact, what I have witnessed has been more than day-to-day affability or charmed attempts to chase the tourist dollar. When my family was faced with a medical emergency, we found ourselves 7,000 miles from home, unable to speak the language, and utterly terrified.

Without the help we received from locals, whom we had known for all of a few hours, we would have been stranded. English-speakers stayed late into the night to help us translate, and doctors returned hours after the end of their shift to check in. Calls came in left and right from Turkish friends of extended family members who wanted to help out in any way possible. These strangers became our saving graces.

I was most struck that all the people who volunteered their help did so out of the kindness of their heart, not because they owed us anything. No one was responsible for our well-being. No one was obligated to make sure we were OK. Their generosity has reminded me that humans are good-hearted creatures, and it is our responsibility to find that goodness within one another.

The second truth: There is a strength in Islamic culture that is like nothing I have ever witnessed.

By a chance of good fortune my time here aligns with the annual observance of Ramadan, one of the Five Pillars of Islam. It is an arduous month-long personal commitment of the mind and body to be closer to God. Observant adult Muslims refrain from eating or drinking from dawn to dusk, among other disciplines.

Twice I have been lucky enough to stumble upon community gatherings of hundreds and hundreds of families, waiting together in public areas to break that day’s fast. Homemade meals sat on tables, or the grass, or in a person’s lap, slowly getting cold as hungry people patiently waited to eat until sundown. The discipline and commitment they displayed was, to say the least, quite impressive.

One of the reasons why witnessing the observance of Ramadan has been so powerful lies in the fact that I have never seen religious devotion on such a large scale. Vermont is predominantly agnostic and atheist, the country is predominantly Christian, and the U.S. prides itself on freedom of religion. While I am proud and incredibly fortunate to live in such a diverse country, it has meant that I never been part of a community where the majority of the people share the same belief system.

The more I learn about the teachings of Islam, and specifically Ramadan, the less foreign the religion seems to me. It actually reminds me quite a bit of the religious beliefs held by early colonial American settlers. Ramadan underscores the importance of refraining from sinful behavior, encourages introspection and charity, brings families together and is intended to refocus one’s attention to God. 

On a fundamental level, how is that so different from Puritanism? Yes, colonists worshiped in churches instead of mosques. One group identifies as Christians while the other identifies as Muslims. One of the many things traveling has taught me is that the "differences" that can separate us from one another are merely technicalities. I try to remind myself that those who seem worlds away may be more similar to myself than I thought.

My third truth is much more mundane. It is this: I’m not going to say Turkish bananas are the best bananas I’ve ever had, but I’m also not going to say they’re not. I will say, though, that baklava blows my mind.

That’s all for today. Until next time,

Alana.

Alana Redden is a senior in high school at Leland & Gray. She can be contacted by e-mail at alana.redden@gmail.com.