The voice of the man we would never see entered the window of our second floor room in the hostel on Bogazkesen street. It echoed in our ears while we were half asleep. We tried to ignore the words we didn’t understand by pressing our faces into our pillows. It was only sunrise after all.
Though we would never meet the muezzin whose call to prayer marked the days, we grew accustomed to witnessing his significance throughout Istanbul. The closest we came to seeing this man was in the New Mosque next to the famous Spice Bazaar. We sat cross-legged on the carpet of the mosque’s tourist canal, scarves that we bought especially for this occasion draped awkwardly over our heads.
The seeming inappropriateness of us being in this reverent heaven was balanced by the respectful awe apparent in our eyes. My friends, Cara and Erica, and I darted them from the men bowing and listening, kissing and wanting in the front to the more aptly-scarfed women behind gates in the back. I saw Erica tilt her face to the ceiling where surely the great divine that sent shivers up our arms was granting each prayer as it came through the devotion.
I had never been in a city were religion was so palpable, so laced in the culture. Even the strong-willed opinions and Western clothes of what looked to be Brooklyn hipsters in Cihangir couldn’t erase the presence of the reverence.
Each morning we stopped in front of a handsome man using a chunky steel juice press to turn oranges and grapefruits into our breakfast. Teşekkür ederim we whispered shyly testing one of the few Turkish words we learned.
The manager of our hostel had sat with me on the couch the night I arrived, poured me a cup of tea, took the sweet cakes I had set on the table in front of us and told me that you pronounce thank you like tea-sugar-a-dream. I noted it was five syllables longer than thanks. We had the time.
We easily familiarized ourselves with our neighborhood for the week, Taksim, and hiked up steep streets whose body could surely only fit one car, but pushed us up against houses as two squeezed by. Many prayers in the mosques must be devoted to driving in Istanbul, as the evasion of accidents defies all laws of gravity and space.
Ironically, the streets where no cars are allowed to drive are the ones that could fit them. People flock to these larger spaces and fill them with the movement of raised arms holding snapping fingers, shoulders slightly hunched, eyes looking at the ground. Guitars are strummed on these streets. Demonstration pamphlets are distributed. These too are prayers.
On a sunny Thursday afternoon we scrambled to the edge of the Sea of Marmara to catch a ferry to the “Big Island” of Büyükada, part of the Princes Islands. We were warned to take the one hour ride, not the two, and we navigated several well-dressed, wing-tipped men to obtain three tickets on the right boat. I only got half-way through saying thanks in Turkish before Cara pulled me in the direction of the sea. As we pushed away from the dock, I admired the intricacies of the Istanbul skyline, cutouts piling on top of each other against the blue sky to get a good view of our departure.
As promised, one hour later we stepped off of the ferry and stepped onto what looked like an antiquated beach town. Men in sweaters sold the yellow flowers of blooming mimosa trees and women in flowing peasant skirts stood by racks of flowered crowns.
We walked slowly by ice cream shops displaying chocolate and pistachio-crusted cones before spotting a small, doorless store front with a red metal oven housing three drawers filled with baked potatoes. We practically ran to the glass case displaying toppings, and ticked off the items with which we wanted to crown our potatoes. We started with butter and salt. I added everything but the pepperoni: purple cabbage, carrots, couscous, beets, pickles, cheese, black olives, peas, cole slaw, hot sauce. Before you say ‘ew’, I want to tell you that I finished it all.
Besides eating three pounds of potatoes, we had a very specific mission on Büyükada: we were going to make some wishes.
With a heart full of belief and comfortable shoes we started walking up the road lined with white washed houses whose back yards were the sea. Bikers and horse-drawn carriages breezed past us as we took in the details of the thick trees and multi-colored stray cats.
I thought about my wish and the description Erica had read to us out loud from the tourist book she carried in her tan purse: “Although the church building itself is unexceptional with nothing really fascinating, the backyard of the church offers some very beautiful sights of the other islands and the sea. On April 23rd every year, which is considered as St George’s holy day, a crowd of seemingly tens of thousands attend the church to make wishes. Wish making rituals that day range from the usual burning a candle to climbing the cobbled path on bare feet to untying wool balls all along the path.”
Erica, Cara and I are pretty faithful girls. We believe in dancing emphatically to our favorite songs at 700 Club; in a long yoga class at the end of a long day; in the necessity of humor; and the power of travel to new places to open your mind and make you feel free.
Though we weren’t at Saint George’s on the official saint’s day, we each took a pen, a small square of white paper and wrote down a wish we wanted to come true. A wish sounds more magical than a prayer.
Hearing the echo of the man we would never see, I folded my piece of paper and dropped it into the clear glass box on the east wall of the church. Making wishes in that church, with Istanbul across the sea, weaving and waning its prayers, I think we had it all on our side.