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Istanbul! Beautiful emotional chaos. I was having lunch around the hostel when suddenly, I heard the most incredible sound in my life: a voice that repeated words in a different language, like a song. I was petrified listening and felt a desire to get up and follow the sound to see where it came from. It inundated the whole city, hypnotized my mind, lifted me from the seat and I closed my eyes until it stopped.
I knew nothing about Muslims other than my own judgment and what the media had bombed in recent years. I was acting defensive as if their culture was attacking me and this is one of the biggest mistakes a traveler can make. Try to observe and don’t let your prejudices prevent you from learning and enriching yourself with different thoughts even if your convictions don’t change. The contrasts help us understand the world a little more and diversity teaches us that respect and tolerance is essential for peace and new knowledge.
So I never imagined that a simple visit would become such a memorable experience after a heavy day. I arrived in Istanbul the day before yesterday and felt strange. I was tired and uncomfortable because couldn’t adapt to the culture. All my life I had fought to reduce the margin between men and women around me: I don’t believe in submission but freedom to chose what to wear or look like, equal rights, reject what is commonly known as chivalry to demonstrate my economic and emotional independence, capabilities, physical strength, and so on. And it was very shocking to see so many women covered, dressed in their hijabs. I couldn’t be as objective as I wanted and that frustrated me. I knew I would hate Turkey if I didn’t overcome that cultural barrier. And it was more difficult when felt the difference of treatment for being a woman: the salesmen didn’t speak to me or see me directly, they only spoke and answered my travel companion. I was very focused on the little things, on my judgments and I couldn’t appreciate the learning process because was trying to adapt to the personally unadaptable.

One afternoon, I made a huge effort again and ignoring my emotions, visited Süleymaniye mosque. A beautiful architectural work designed by Mimar Sinan, inaugurated in 1557 and the second largest in the whole city with spectacular views. I noticed that some people washed their feet, hands and face before entering, the shoes had to be removed and for women it was essential to cover their hair, arms and legs. (Don’t worry, if you aren’t prepared, at the entrance they provide you with appropriate clothing to cover.)
I entered and watched those beautiful ceilings, felt the soft carpet under my feet, and admiring the majestic lamps, my tension was reduced. The mosque was divided into three zones: a small part where women pray, another small part where tourists are allowed to be while it isn’t the time for prayer and a broader third to the front where men pray.
I saw several young Muslim women and men behind the division between the tourist area and the male prayer area talking to visitors. I was curious and felt a strong need to approach subtly to listen. When he was available, I slowly walked until was in front of him. He offered me a pamphlet, I accepted it and immediately asked him to explain a little about his culture. We sat on the rug and patiently answered each of my questions, expanding each topic with data and valuable information about their beliefs.
Within their convictions, women use the hijab to protect themselves and not be sexualized, the separation between genders within the mosque is given to avoid distractions. When they pray, they touch their shoulders as a symbol of equality and It’s not well seen to touch a woman, it’s disrespectful. Women also don’t feel comfortable with the proximity of strangers and apply the same principle. He told me that Islam is very different in each country since there are more radical, conservative areas. They think that the Virgin Mary was a messenger of God and women should follow her, if she was covered, they should follow the example. They follow the Coran (which is analogous to the Bible for Catholics and Christians) literally because it’s the sacred word and guidance that God gave them to live.

Their main principal value is love, as Catholics. They believe that there were messengers and prophets and disagree with Christians because for them there is only one God; to think of the existence of the holy spirit or a trinity is inconceivable. The Coran tells them how to live and even some political laws are influenced by it. (Needless to say, I accepted a copy of the Coran to read at home).
The man can choose to marry a non-Muslim woman but not the other way around. Within their traditions, the man is the one who makes the decisions, the one who maintains the family and a dominant woman can become a problem. That said, the man is the one who decides what religion the children will follow. If a woman marries a person of another religion, that individual would have the power to choose another religion for the children and that’s not well seen either. It's almost an insult to the family.
He told me that prays 5 times a day, no matter where they are, always looking towards Mecca. And i actually found a website where you can find the exact hours to pray according to the area of ​​Istanbul
During that space, tourists are not allowed to enter mosques, take photos or videos because it’s a time of connection with God and respect. The sound similar to the song I heard on my first day is the call to prayer and it resounds through the city because of speakers. The phrases recited by the muezzin are in Arabic such as: Allah is great, Allah is great.
I knew it was an enormous challenge to absorb that information in the most impartial way. But after a while, I genuinely got interested in knowing more because I wanted to learn, to understand something opposed to what I had heard all my life. I needed to challenge my tolerance knowing that these people were not malicious, they just had a conviction as strong as mine but with different principles. And that made it more intriguing.
Having an open heart is the most complicated thing I‘ve been able to experience. But after almost two hours of conversation, I told him about my little blog, what interested me and thanked him for being open minded to my points of view without being offended by cultural differences. But the real surprise was when he accepted the hand of my traveling companion but not mine. Very cautiously he said: - Now that I’ve explained a bit about our traditions, I hope you don’t take it personal. It’s disrespectful to touch a woman. Sometimes I ‘d had to do it but in this case, with your interest in the Muslim culture, I feel I can be honest. - And I bowed to him with a smile.
After dinner, we returned to the hostel and received a message on my Blog´s facebook page. Fatih (the mosque volunteer) invited us to a cultural dinner to share some time. I was very surprised but I accepted with pleasure.
I got up early and in the afternoon, we headed towards the mosque half an hour before the prayer call (known as aḏān). I went to talk with young women volunteers because I wanted to hear the female point of view. For the second time I saw reflected in her words the honest conviction of what she was saying. They follow the Coran literally, they like the idea of ​​covering themselves to protect themselves from impure thoughts, to stay intact for their husbands.
Nobody forces them to wear hijab, at least not in that region. They like to pray separately, it helps them to concentrate better. Contrary to what I thought, they have the power to choose who to marry since marriages are not arranged as it was in the past. This may vary from region to region. They can study, work, although their biggest responsibility is children. Man is their leader and as such, their main job is to provide money. They can also choose to divorce.
The hijab is used in puberty although girls like to dress like this from a younger age. The family is important as well as the traditions, its principles are based on love and obedience. I thanked them for their time and met Fatih, who placed us in a special space, next to the area where men pray. He let us be present during the prayer and watch their sacred ritual.
Sublime. An intimate and individual coexistence wrapped in the magical aura of a voice that calls Muslims to speak with their God. I dedicated myself to contemplate children, young people and adults united in the sphere of prayers.
After a while, we got up and left the mosque. Our new friend took us to meet Sehmus Kacan , one of the best calligraphers in Istanbul with an impressive job. His office was full of paintings with calligraphic art made by his skilled hands. I think most of them were in Arabic, with Coran verses and exquisite details and ornaments. Suddenly, he offered to write my name in Arabic as a gift.

After a while, we walk through the beautiful streets of Istanbul until we reach a house with incredible decoration. In the hall, Mr. Adnan and Miss Betul welcomed us as if we were distant friends. He has a tourism agency and was interested in knowing our opinion about Turkey, the culture and what we liked. He had plans to open other types of businesses to attract the attention of travelers who wanted to take a special memory of their traditions.
After talking for a while about our adventures and plans, they invited us to dinner. An exquisite lentil soup, rice with almonds and spices from the region, a chicken and spectacular salad were the tasty food they shared. Trying to describe it doesn’t do justice to what our palates experienced. As a dessert they offered us dates (which became FAVORITES) and fruits.
We had many inquiries about the Muslims and in the middle of a cozy room, we continued the conversation. Their focus is always God and not so much the negative counterpart. Yes, they believe in angels. We share our vision of death, life, and they were interested in knowing how we perceive them from the West: they wanted to understand how they can bring people together to learn about Islam.
I wasn’t embarrassed to ask silly things and tried to choose the right words to avoid offending sensitivities. In matters of religions you have to be careful, especially if personally you don’t follow any.
From one moment to another, that hypnotizing sound flooded the space. It gave me goosebumps and was the call to prayer. They offered to teach us how to pray as Muslims do and we were divided. Miss Betul and I went upstairs and the men stayed on the floor below because the gender division applies anywhere.
We wash our face from the forehead where the hair is born up to the chin with the right hand from the top to the bottom. Then the arms from the elbow to the fingers starting always with the right. Then we wet the crown of the head and finally wash the feet. This is called Wudu or Ablution and is a way to purify the body and soul, preparing for prayer.
When we finished, Miss Betul invited me to cover my hair and neck offering a blanket. I followed her movements listening to her, trying to connect with that source of spiritual energy with phrases that I didn’t understand but sounded very beautiful. When we finished, she explained better what happened: (This I forgot a little but my friend Fatih helped me to refresh the memory). To begin with, you can choose a verse from the Coran to recite, bow down to worship Allah, then prostrate yourself by exalting Allah twice until you sit down. When finished, greet and thank the angels right and left.

Fatih had to go first and we greatly appreciated the experience. Mr. Adnan kept chatting with us told that they wanted to open a space to teach Arabic, to invite people to know about Islam, maybe to host them but it’s difficult for a tourist to trust and live the experience. They believe faithfully that helping, inviting passengers and sharing culture gives them bonuses to go to heaven: good deeds are compensated. We ended the evening by thanking them for their hospitality, exchanging phones and asking them for a souvenir photograph. I regretted that Fatih wasn’t present to include him at this moment, but the experience and the time he offered is something I will never forget. If you visit Istanbul, go to the Suleymaniye Mosque, talk to the volunteers, keep your mind and heart open to receive all the knowledge, culture and diverse opinions. Yes, you may experience shock, especially if you are a woman and yes, you may not feel comfortable at times but give yourselves the chance to listen. Take enough time to reflect and draw your conclusions about life, spirituality, tolerance and love!
Best vibes of all dimensions and lots of cosmic love for everyone!

Have you had any cultural experience in Turkey? How did you feel?


Photographer, aspiring film maker, dreamer, in love with the world!! Everything you want is on the other side of fear!!