Our flight from Cappadocia to Istanbul was three hours late. That put a damper on our sightseeing plans for the last day of our vacation. Above all, we wanted to see the famous Hagia Sofia mosque. Originally built as a Christian Orthodox church, Hagia Sophia was transformed into a mosque by the Ottomans upon their conquest of Constantinople in 1453. In 1934, it was declared a museum by the Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. In 2020 it was converted back into a mosque. It remains a major tourist attraction.
When we checked into our room it was past 2.00 p.m. There wasn’t much time to do anything. Over a cup of tea in the lobby, we decided to hire a taxi to take us around to see the Hagia Sofia. We would be content even if we got to see it from a distance.
We returned to our room to rearrange stuff in our suitcases, showered, put on clean clothes, and went down to the lobby. As directed by the concierge we approached the doorman and told him of our intent.
The doorman listened to us and asked us to follow him. We walked to a waiting taxi. The doorman spoke with the taxi driver in Turkish and requested we occupy the back seat. The driver was a young man dressed in Jeans, a light blue shirt, and a dark jacket. We were glad that he spoke English, not well but enough to get by. He said there will be a two-hour minimum for the ride.
The driver was quiet for a while. Bharati and I looked at each other wondering how the ride was going to be.
I started the conversation by asking the driver what his name was.
“Ercan,” he said and explained that it is pronounced Erjan.
“Hey,” I said in response. “In India it is Arjun.”
“Yes,” he said. “Where are you guys from?”
“How long have you stayed in America?”
“I came to America when I was twenty-three years old,” I replied. “That was sixty years ago.”
Arjun calculated my age and his body language changed instantly.
“Mashallah,” he shouted. “In Turkey, people your age cannot walk.”
He was so excited that he tapped his cell phone and was soon talking to his sister in Allentown, Pennsylvania on a WhatsApp video call. He wanted us to say hello to her. We made small talk with his sister about where we lived in the US, the current weather, etc.
As we rode through the crowded streets, we noticed small stores and restaurants of various types. One restaurant had a large neon sign saying “Biryani Palace.” I felt as if I was in Mumbai, India. We got a flavor of the local neighborhoods.
Arjun still couldn’t get over our ages. He turned to me and said I looked sixty and to Bharati, he said she looked fifty.
We were approaching Hagia Sophia. The street was narrow and crowded with pedestrians and vehicles. There was no place to park. Arjun stopped in front of a carpet store, walked up, and talked to the person sitting on the stoop. He came back and said we should get out and walk to the mosque. The person he had talked with was going to keep an eye on his taxi.
Thus began our visit to the mosque that we were craving. We had to climb a few steps and walk through a park. Like a perfect gentleman, Arjun extended his left elbow towards me to help me climb the steps. The area in front of the mosque was tiled with patches of well-manicured grass, lined with trees. It was well-lit. There were families with children who were running around, laughing, and playing. A few carts were selling what looked like giant pretzels that can be seen on the streets of New York City. The mosque itself was brightly lit and glowed in yellow and pink. It looked spectacular in the evening.
We walked to the entrance to the mosque. People had lined up to get in. Arjun asked if wanted to go in. We didn’t want to go in. To our left was the Blue Mosque, another famous monument. It was under reconstruction. As we were walking towards the Blue Mosque the Mullah started chanting the evening namaz. The amazing this was that the mullah in Hagia Sophia also started the namaz at the same time. It was like a duet. First, the Blue Mosque mullah would say a verse and keep quiet, then it was the turn of the one in Hagia Sophia. It was so well orchestrated. The whole atmosphere was awesome and so serene. I asked Arjun if the namaz was taped. He said no, it was delivered live in person.
We would have been happy to get a glimpse of the mosque, instead, we got an up-close visitation. What we got was beyond expectation. We thanked Arjun for making our day.
Arjun recommended that we try the local Turkish kebobs and the baklava. He took us to a restaurant in a busy shopping arcade with carpet and rug stores and travel agencies. The restaurant was fairly large and almost fully occupied. It was rectangular with tables and booths that had burgundy over white stripes. To the left of the entrance was the open kitchen. We could see and smell meat being grilled. To the right, on a raised platform were two musicians. I had never seen the instruments they were playing. To their left, on the same platform, a tall man wearing a white robe and a Turkish Ottoman Fez was the whirling dervish’s dancer. He kept twirling right and left. I wondered how he didn’t get dizzy. A few men were with their wives and were smoking Hookah. Bharati requested a young man carrying a Hookah to pose for her. He obliged at the same time blew out a cloud of smoke. Once in a while, a restaurant employee would walk around with a tray of piping hot coal to replenish the one in the hookah. An elderly woman sitting along the wall opposite the musicians rolled large size bread that she cooked on an inverted wok. The whole local scene put us in a cheerful state of mind.
The chicken kebobs were out of this world and the baklava was too good to describe. Arjun ate with us. At one point we asked our server to take a photo of us with Arjun. Arjun requested us to send a copy to him on his WhatsApp number and we did. Whenever we said something that impressed him, he would say “Mashallah.” He said it at least ten times.
He asked us if we would return to Istanbul again. We said we would consider it.
“Inshallah,” he said. “When you visit next time stay longer. Call me and I will take you wherever you want to go.”
Our taxi was where we had left it in front of the store. We paid ten dollars to the person who looked after our taxi. His face glowed in surprise and appreciation. As we were told the inflation in Turkey was running at the rate of eighty to one hundred percent. On that day a US dollar equaled nineteen Turkish lire. No wonder the man was happy to get paid in solid US currency.
As we drove back to the hotel, Arjun started singing loudly to the accompaniment of what was playing on the radio. I didn’t understand the language, so I didn’t know if it was a love song, a ballad, or a devotional hymn. He would start on a high note, then lower it and then become soft. He would move his head this way and that and tap the steering wheel with his right thumb. When he stopped singing Bharati requested him to sing again and he obliged with a different song.
As we entered the hotel parking lot, I asked how much we owed him.
“Mashallah,” he said. “No charge. You are like my Baba (Dad) and Anney (Mom).”
We said that in America even parents pay their kids for service performed. He finally agreed to charge us for three hours at $20 an hour. We were so happy to meet someone colorful like Arjun, who made it a night to remember. We did go to the rooftop restaurant for a glass of wine to celebrate. It was late and we had to get up early. But we didn’t care.
(Arjun explained that Mashallah is used to express a feeling of awe or beauty and Inshallah is used for a future event that would happen God willing.)