Picture this scene: adorned with beautiful mosaic tiles, grand columns and bathed in glorious Istanbul sunshine, the Hagia Sophia museum (formerly a church and a mosque) is truly a wonder to behold. One of very few remaining examples of Byzantine architecture, it was a must-see on a beautiful trip to Turkey with two of my closest friends.
Now, imagine that awkward moment when you realize that though surrounded by tourists from Europe, Asia and the Middle East alike, the Hagia Sophia is no longer the subject of the many eager camera lenses…you are.
Cue the overzealous Paparazzi style clicking and a fruitless attempt to discretely exit stage left. This was just one of many instances to come. Throughout the trip, we quickly became accustomed to shouts of random black celebrity names as we passed by, especially in more dense, tourist and market areas.
“Heyyy Beyonce!” I guess that one was for my cousin whose gorgeous bounds of big curls had many intrigued. “Rihanna, I love you” was usually for my friend whose fine features were framed perfectly by a sharp pixie haircut. “Merhaba (hello) Naomi Campbell”, donning long straight hair extensions at the time, I’ll go ahead and claim that one!
Now, clearly they didn’t think we were the real thing – far from it. However for many, the tenuous links referred to some of their very limited (and sometimes only) references to actual black women – though having said that, on one occasion, we were greeted with “Yo, president Obama” which no doubt threw us all off!
The paparazzi didn’t stop either, though it wasn’t always on the sly. We would get approached by families (often Afghan tourists), asking if we wouldn’t mind them taking a picture.
What to do? Were we to take offense? Feel harassed? After all, we were there to enjoy a vacation just like many others.
Fortunately though, traveling with likeminded people meant that we always sought opportunities for some sort of cultural exchange (however small), and that we would not be entertaining interruptions to our own enjoyment as far as we could control. It also helped that we had experience of being from one place and living in another, so had come to empathize with the many different manifestations of curiosity.
So we decided that we were happy to be in people’s photos as long as they would be in ours too. Sometimes a little surprised or amused by our return request, all of them happily obliged! What we ended up with was not only an album full of random people we will probably never see again, but also memories of many conversations and exchanges that allowed us to gain a little insight into one another beyond the obvious aesthetic difference of skin color.
Sultanhamet was our main stomping ground and our base for exploring other places in and around Istanbul, such as the Bosphorus, Princes Island, and Yoros castle in Andalou (part of the Asian territory of Turkey). True to form, our excursions were often food led and we sampled everything from homemade Su Borek, and elaborate restaurant meat platters to grilled mackerel sandwiches along the pier.
It was after a long afternoon shopping in Grand Bazaar market, drinking apple tea and eating way too many pieces of Turkish delight that we got chatting with one of the traders. With much gesturing and re-wording, he was excited to find out that we originated from Ghana; not because he had been or knew where it was but because in his opinion we produced some of the best football (soccer) players known to man – who was I to argue?! It served as a reminder that in all the curiosity, there was essentially an underlying desire to find ways to connect. Ways to make the unknown more familiar.
In all, Istanbul treated us well and our trip was one to remember. I can imagine nowhere else where you would find Naomi, Riri and Bey eating street food while taking selfies and sailing into the sunset and straddling the wavering border of where east meets west.