Traveling in Color
Istanbul’s a city that’s seen it all. Since its founding 600 years before Christ and in the centuries since, the Romans, Byzantines, Latins, and Ottomans have each deemed Istanbul a suitable capital for their respective empires. Throughout the years, the city’s geography has worked in its favor. Straddling the Asian and European continents hasn’t been without its advantages as the city has attracted merchants from all corners of the globe to its shores in hopes of trading their spices, textiles, and wares.
It’s with this ‘Istanbul’s seen it all’ mindset that we set out to explore the city without feeling the least bit uncomfortable or out of place in such an ethnically and religiously homogenous setting. Any reservations we may have had about traveling to Turkey out of concern about how we’d be treated in a country where sightings of black folks are few and far between were allayed during our tour through the ornate, over-the-top rooms of Dolmabahçe Palace. Hanging on one of the palace walls was a large, beautiful painting depicting a scene set somewhere in Turkey of caravanning merchants clad in turbans with skin that was unmistakably darker than ours. I considered the painting proof that black travel has been occurring in this corner of the world since ancient times. Yet, we were such a novelty in Istanbul.
I mean, I don’t want to exaggerate since by and large, we went by seemingly unnoticed except for a fair share of prolonged stares from locals whenever we entered their markets and restaurants. But it seems that after the first few nights in Istanbul, the locals really began to take notice that there were black people in their midst.
One evening, en route to our hotel past the Blue Mosque, a vendor approached us and asked where we were from.
“We’re from California,” my brother, Aaron, replied to the amiable-looking man who appeared to be in his early twenties.
The vendor continued to cheerfully engage in small talk with us, curiously feeling us out, when, as if unable to control a sudden urge he blurted, “I love dark people!” Taken aback, we all laughed, albeit somewhat uncomfortably. While flattered, we were a bit perplexed – not due to any insecurity about our complexions, but because in the U.S., being dark is something that is rarely praised, largely due to deluded and misguided ideals about beauty. So adding the context of our black American realities to our conversation with this Turkish merchant, we were curious to know what prompted his intrigue about our skin color.
“Why do you love dark people?” another one of my travel mates asked the merchant.
“Well, because I’m dark and there are dark people in my family. My brother’s dark,” he explained. “I want to marry a black woman – like you,” he said, rubbing my arm. More awkward laughter as Jave reached for my hand.
One evening, as we were leaving Eminönü, a group of teenage boys startled us when they suddenly seemed to appear from nowhere, bum-rushing us from behind and shouting excitedly with camera phones in hand in hopes of posing in a picture with Jave and Aaron. As the teenage boys bumped fists with the men in my family and blew kisses to us ladies in the group, we looked at each other, laughing in disbelief and wondering when we became celebrities.
Throughout our stay in Istanbul, we continued to receive random props from locals intrigued by our skin tones – from our restaurant waiter who wanted to pose for pictures with us before we left, to a group of local women on our return ferry from Büyükada who engaged us in conversation, wanting to know more about where we were from and our impressions of Istanbul.
Even a police officer wielding an intimidating-looking machine gun at the entrance to Dolmabahçe Palace requested us to pose for a picture with him in which he was all smiles. Sadly, in the U.S., black Americans are taught that the police are anything but friendly and that 9-1-1 is a joke. So a machine gun-toting officer wanting to pose with us was welcomed but bizarre to say the least!
One afternoon, as we made our way to a bus stop on the noticeably quieter Asian side of the city, we suddenly heard a shrilling scream from across the street, “AFFFFFFRICCCCAAAAA!” the voice shouted as we looked around trying to match the voice with a face. A few moments later we heard the same unmistakable voice shout, “OBAAAAMA!”
At that moment, I didn’t quite know how I felt. Should I stop and raise my fist in the air with pride, or should I just exchange uncertain glances with my travel mates and quietly laugh about it amongst ourselves? Were the Turkish people genuinely excited to see us and welcome us to their country, or did they see us as an oddity because we’re black?
I felt that riding the local bus would give me some insight into how we were truly perceived. Growing up with a mother who summered in Memphis and a father who was born and raised in Florida during Jim Crow, I was taught stories about Rosa Parks, bus boycotts, and Freedom Riders. In my mind, a ride in close quarters on the local bus in Istanbul would surely reveal the locals’ prejudices if they did, in fact, exist.
As we boarded and handed the driver our bus passes, we realized that some of us hadn’t added enough lira to our cards. As we turned to make our way off the bus to the kiosk where we could add more money to our cards, an elderly local man stood up and swiped his bus pass for those of us who had insufficient fares. Amazed by the man’s generosity, which we all later agreed we’d never encountered at home in the U.S., we offered the man lira for allowing us to use his pass. Smiling, he politely declined our offer and motioned for us to take our seats.
“Teşekkür ederim!” we enthusiastically thanked him in appreciation.
Looking back, I’m still not sure whether we were novelties or oddities in Turkey – perhaps we were a bit of both. Whether we were warmly welcomed because of our skin color or in spite of it shall remain a mystery, I suppose. But in my heart of hearts, I want to believe that by welcoming us and being hospitable, the Turkish people were simply doing what they do best.