Each year, September 11th brings an aching nostalgia to me. Not for the events on that horrific day, but for the ease with which the world traveled prior to those attacks.
On September 4, 2001, I moved to Istanbul, Turkey, to teach English at a gorgeous campus overlooking the Black Sea. Koç University has a stunningly beautiful campus. My lojman (faculty apartment) looked directly at the Black Sea, and I could spend hours in my living room, glancing out at the sea. It was a place of dreams and imagination.
Istanbul is an incredible city. It is vibrant, cosmopolitan, ancient, and wise. It is, by far, my favorite city, and I hope with my whole being that someday I will be able to take my family to my old haunts so they can enjoy it as I did. Rumeli Kavagi, Aya Sofya, Ortakoy, Istinye, Bebek, Bagdat Caddesi, Istiklal Caddesi, the Adalar, and my beloved Sariyer, the calm fishing town at the northern end of the Bosphorus where I lived my everyday life. The town that taught me Turkish. Not academic Turkish, but enough to pronounce my students’ names, buy my vegetables at the Wednesday market, and not get cheated by taxi drivers.
But the world, and Istanbul, are not the same as they were fifteen years ago. Travel is less enjoyable and much more frustrating. Islam is misunderstood by wide swaths of the planet, and travel brings real concerns and dangers, which appear on the social media circuit and cable news outlets quickly, and without much journalistic fact-checking.
When I left for Istanbul, a week before the attacks on September 11th, my parents walked me to my airline terminal. To my recollection, there was no screening or TSA. To my knowledge, all I had to prove was that my bag fit in the overhead bin. It was an easy and innocent time.
The flight was completely forgettable. It took ten hours. Minneapolis to Amsterdam. Amsterdam to Istanbul. And just like that, I was in Istanbul. My boss generously picked me up at the airport.
I remember driving through the Roman aqueducts on the way in to the city. I remember seeing the Bosphorus for the first time, bustling with ferries and fishermen. I remember going to my first Turkish grocery store, Cima, right on the Bosphorus. I don’t think it’s even there anymore. I remember images, smells, sounds, and these all make me love Istanbul even more, well most of them did.
I remember being so very happy. Istanbul helped me meet one of the few life goals I had actually stated. I wanted to live somewhere else for a while. Not forever, just for a while. It is very difficult to know yourself, truly know yourself, if you do not challenge yourself. For me, that meant a new language, a new culture, and new experiences.
And then, one week after I arrived, it happened. My innocence, trusting nature, and happy were challenged with a highly coordinated attack. My family was worried about me, after all, I was the one in a Muslim country. I still don’t see the logic there. I was worried about my family, back in the country which was attacked.
Turks, who had already endured ten years of attacks by the PKK with a death toll over 30,000, knew all too well how it felt. They were kind and compassionate. I had random women walk up to me in Carrefour (something like a Walmart) and hug me, kiss me on both cheeks, and cry. They were devastated that this could happen. And they had hope that because this happened to the US, that maybe it could stop everywhere.
That is clearly not what happened.
So what is the lesson in all this?
Love, not hate.
Exploration, not devastation.
Courage, not fear.
If I can remember to take life’s challenges with love, exploration, and courage, instead of hate, devastation, and fear, I will be fine.
And so will you.
Peace to you today, and always.