And so I decided to take a break from the party scene in Berlin for a while and chill out in Istanbul. Maybe the sober religiosity of a Muslim city would do me good. But I soon discovered that Istanbul was a party city par excellence and my first half year in Istanbul I spent in the bars and loft clubs of Taksim, dancing to Gypsy music and old skuzzy arabesk songs and putting down large quantities of rakı.
However I wasn’t happy. After a couple of one night stands and some serious hangovers, I realized I had come to Istanbul for another reason. And so I started gravitating less towards Taksim and more towards the conservative district of Fatih, hanging around Fatih mosque, taking in the old Istanbul vibe and conversing with the old Muslim men in traditional headgear, şalvar trousers and beards. And come Ramadan, I even tried fasting for one day, which was very difficult especially because I smoked.
All the while I was going to mass at St. Antoine’s, a big Catholic church off of Istiklal Caddesi on Saturdays. The priest was a jovial African, who had come to minister to the West African Catholic community in Istanbul. One day during confession, I confided to him that I had been entertaining thoughts of converting to Islam. The priest looked at me gravely. I had made a covenant, he said, and I was not to break the covenant.
Meanwhile I was teaching at Berlitz in Kadıköy, on the Asian side. A portrait of Atatürk hung in every room, like Big Brother in 1984. Most of my students were business people, Kemalists mainly, who had very little to do with religion. But I had one class that was different. The students were all Muslims, and quite often we would take a break from the finer points of the English grammar to talk about Islam and religious matters. They became my best class. And my best student was a young man in his twenties named Ercument, who I spoke frankly with on the subject of religion, be it Islam or Catholicism.
Ercument and the rest of the students kept signing up for follow-up courses with me. Then I didn’t see Ercument for a couple of months. In the time being Ramadan had come and gone. Shortly after Ramadan, Ercument appeared again for class. He wanted to know what my plans were for the future after not seeing me for two months, and whether I had decided to stay in Istanbul another year.
I told him I wanted to go back to Berlin. That sometimes I felt a little bit homesick for the city of my birth. I had a nice apartment in Berlin, after all. And I had friends and family. But I wasn’t decided. It was still up in the air. I thought I might stay an extra year in the end. And it looked like I was splitting up with my girlfriend; the long-distance relationship wasn’t bearing up to the strain. That was one thing in favor of staying.
Ercument said that in the course of two months he thought I would have become Muslim and was going to mosque every day now and praying and maybe I had even kept oruç during Ramadan.
“I tried fasting,” I told him, “but only for a couple of days.”
“Why only for a couple of days?” asked Ercument.
“Just to get a sense of what it’s like.”
“And what was your impression?”
“I felt very spiritual,” I said. “And what’s new with you?” I said, changing the subject; I felt uncomfortable talking about the condition of my soul.
“I can say that everything is the same,” said Ercument. “I went through very hard period with Ramadan. I needed glucose, but I didn’t have glucose, so I was nervous; I was tired. And the work was very hard – was very hard – was very, very hard. And so it was bad. But now maybe in two weeks everything is going to be good again. I am hoping for my future. I hope God will help me and I can get over these my problems. I am very stressed because of these problems.”
“Just job problems?” I asked.
“Yes. Just job problems. Especially relating to job. And social life. Private live. And also I have some troubles with money. Because my salary is going down.”
“Why is it going down?” I said.
“Because of taxes. And I need money. I bought a new house, and I have to pay every month. And I need money. Money problems. Work problems. Etc. etc.”
“What did you do for bayram?” I asked.
“I went to my family,” said Ercument. “They live in the Black Sea. I visited them and we were together. So, I was happy because of that. Also, I met my old friends and I spent a lot of time with them. Yes, it was good. Unfortunately, I have come back to the arena. Istanbul is an arena, for me, unfortunately. There are a lot of cows – bulls. Yes, Chicago Bulls. Yes, yes. There are a lot of bulls. And I am a poor matador. I am a poor matador fighting the bulls every time.”
“Istanbul is a dog eat dog world,” I said.
“Dog. Eat. Dog.”
“Yes, yes. There are a lot of people, they seem to be as people. But indeed, they are dogs, worse than dogs. They have no character. They are lying. They want to win a lot of money. They want to win some opportunities, to be CEO, blah, blah. But, you know, I believe in God. I believe in another world. Everything will pass. I am waiting for God. I went to the Fatih mosque on Friday and joined in the cuma namazi? The Friday prayer. No, prayer is not namaz. Prayer is dua. Prayer means in Turkish you want something, you give your wish to God. That’s prayer. But namaz is different. It’s not prayer. Prayer is so different from namaz.”
“It’s ritual of worship,” said Nuri, another one of my students. “Namaz means Allahu akbar.”
“So when you go through the motions, when you bow down…that’s namaz…” I said.
“You hear the ezan and you go to the mosque, then begins the ritual – the namaz. At the end of the ritual you can pray and you beg God and say your wish.”
“I’ve been going to a Catholic church in Taksim,” I said. “St Antoine. I’ve been going on Saturday evening. In the Catholic tradition, Sunday is the usual day of worship. But for those who can’t make it on Sunday morning there is a Saturday evening service. And since I teach Sunday mornings, I go Saturday evenings.”
“Are there a lot of praying people?” asked Nuri.
“Worshipers? Yes. St. Antoine? It’s a big church, and the whole church is used on Sunday for service. But on Saturday there are fewer worshipers, so they don’t use the big church, but rather a small chapel on the side.”
“For praying and for, for….confidention,” said Ercument.
“Confession,” I correct him.
“Confession is very funny,” said Nuri.
“And bullshit. Unfortunately,” put in Ercument.
“You are sitting there and the priest is sitting there and you say – I wish that God forgive me. I did – ha, ha – something wrong – ha, ha,” laughed Nuri.
“Where is your sins?!” asked Nuri rhetorically. “They, uh, went! Where did they go?”
“No,” I tried to explain. “Because the priest is helping to bring you closer to God.”
“No!” exclaimed Ercument. “In Islam every person can pray alone. Every person can talk to God. The imam doesn’t come between a man and God.”
“No, but he’s there to help the worshipers to come closer to God,” I said.
“No imam can help anyone!” said Ercument.
“So why’s he there?” I asked. “What’s his job?”
“The imam’s? Imam means ‘ritual’. In Islam you can pray alone. You can do namaz alone. But if we do namaz together one of us has to be the imam.”
“Yes, imam is leader.”
“So in principle it’s the same thing in Catholicism.”
“It’s a little different,” added Nuri. “We never confess some things to the imam. Because he isn’t interested in us. He is interest only in the ritual. At the end of namaz you can pray to God. But we never confess.”
“Okay,” I said. “We got that. Confessing is something special for Catholics.”
“Yes, and we said that confession is bullshit,” said Ercument. “Not leadership is bullshit.”
“No, confession is a good thing,” I said. “Because the whole point of the Catholic ritual is to commune with God. And by this I mean, taking communion, in which you eat the bread, which symbolizes Jesus and God. And in order to do this you have to be pure in your heart. And in order to be pure in your heart you have to have confessed your sins. And when you are confessing your sins you are not just confessing them to a priest, you are confessing them to God.”
“Okay, you can talk to God in your home, in your office, on the way to work, always. Why you need another man?” asked Ercument.
“I saw on TV, a guy who goes to church to confess his sins, and he says father – I am sorry, I did this bad thing. And he says – ha, ha – don’t worry, I did it before. I understand you very well. Ha, ha. Go home. Trust in God. Ha, ha. Everything will be okay.”
“Don’t laugh,” I said. “It’s part of my upbringing.”
“If you are Muslim you know what kinds of things are a sin and what kinds of things are good things,” said Nuri. “And if you have sinned, you can go to a mosque or you can do it at home.”
“Or anywhere,” said Ercument.
“You can do the ritual, especially at midnight,” said Nuri. “You can go to bed, and before you go to bed you can take water and do abtest, the ritual cleansing. You have to wash your hands and you mouth and your face and your arm and you can clean your body and you can do the ritual. You must be pure. And if you do the ritual correctly you can pray to your God to forgive you. This is only your wish. It is not something with someone who comes between God and you. You don’t need another people. You can talk face to face with God.”
“I went to mass last Saturday. Actually I missed half the mass. I was there for communion, but I didn’t go because I didn’t feel pure,” I said. “So I went to the priest afterwards and was able to confess my sins to him.”
“Did you feel better?” asked Nuri,
“Yes, I did, actually.”
“What will happen after confession? You can just talk to a friend. Instead of a priest you can just talk to a friend. What is the difference?”
“Yes, because the job of the priest….”
“What did he do that is so special? He didn’t do anything for you. Just listen and just give you some advice. Your friends can give you some advice, too.”
“They can give you bad advice, as well.”
“Sometimes good advice, too. He’s my friend and I do something wrong. I confess to my friend and talk to my friend and he can give me good advice.”
“You don’t need any friend, or anyone,” said Ercument. “You need the Book. Koran. You can read and you can do everything in the book. Islam is open to everybody. You can research, you can find what you have to do. And you can do it. You don’t need the imam. You don’t need a priest. You don’t need friends. You don’t need anyone. Because the book is just one. And the same. To everybody. But the Bible – there is four bibles.”
“Four bibles?” I said.
“Four bibles, yes.”
“There’s two: there’s the Old Testament and the New Testament.”
“That’s enough! If there are two it’s confusing!”
“There’s the Old Testament, and Islam is based on many things in the Old Testament. That’s the Bible for the Jews, the Torah, where it talks about Adam and Noah and Moses and Abraham…And then there’s the New Testament, which recounts the life of Jesus.”
“And there you have Mathew, John, Luke, Mark….There is four Bibles. There’s four books!”
“And all of those are together in one Bible.”
“Yes, but it came from different sources. But Koran is just one. From one thousand five hundred years ago. It’s same. And it will be till the end of the world the same. God will keep it. You can choose. And you can join Islam.”
“There are a lot of examples of people who joined to Islam,” said Nuri, “some famous people. Like Cat Stevens.”
“Like Mohammed-Ali,” said Ercument.
“Cat Stevens changed his name to Yusuf Islam,” said Nuri.
“And Maybe you can change your name to Rafet,” said Ercument. “It’s the same nearly: Rafet – Robert.”
Well, sometimes I think that Islam is a good thing, “ I said. “But my religion is enough.”
“But, before the death you should research the Islam,” said Ercument. “That’s my poor advice. Because you have to do the right things before you die in this world. You will be late and after the death we will be created again – it will be too late.”
“But what does Islam say about the good Christians and good Jews?” I asked.
“No, no,” said Ercument. “You have to have said, ‘God is one. Mohammed is the messenger. Islam is the last religion. And God doesn’t have any child. And Jesus isn’t the son. God doesn’t have any son’. If you believe that Jesus is God’s son, unfortunately you will go – ahem – to hell. But if you think deeply you will see. Think: there is a God and he has a child? How? It’s bullshit. But Islam is so sensible. Logical. It makes sense. If you research you will see. And you are now going to Fatih. Good. Continue. If you want we can go together to go to namaz. You are already circumcised? It is okay.”
“You are ready to join Islam,” said Nuri.