“Why do you want to get your fortune told by a rabbit?” asked my Beautiful Turkish Friend.
“Because it’s cool, and they’re cute, and, despite all the times I’ve been to Istanbul, I never had a rabbit tell my fortune.”
She made a kind of puffing noise that Turkish women are wont to make, and we headed off to Ortakoy, not so much because the rabbits there are any more prescient than anywhere else in Istanbul but rather because it’s a simply wonderful place to go for dinner.
Ortakoy is a small neighborhood on the Bosporus, not far from the whomping continent-spanning bridge, which has an unfortunate tendency to tower over it in its whomping way. Even with the bridge, Ortakoy has retained its inimitable charm: small wooden buildings lining cobblestoned streets lead to the central square, which is on the water and usually has tiny fishing boats bobbing up and down next to it (plus enormous freighters gliding by not too far away on their way to or from the Black Sea). On this square are a number of restaurants, most of them specializing in fish. Ortakoy is a great neighborhood to go to if you’re in the mood for fish.
People from Istanbul eat a lot of fish, and almost inevitably it ends up being some special kind of fish that you can’t find anyplace else. On this particular occasion, my Beautiful Turkish Friend informed me that it was palamut season, an eagerly awaited occurrence during which the palamut swim back to the Black Sea. Apparently, once a year they swim from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, but very deep, so you can’t catch them, but then later they swim back, at which time they swim near the surface and are snatched and gobbled up by hungry Turks. (Note: My Beautiful Turkish Friend cautioned me that she might actually be mistaken about which direction is deep and which is shallow, and promised to look it up, but I think I know my readers well enough to bet that you won’t really care and probably don’t plan on fishing for palamut in the Bosporus in the coming weeks anyway.)
So we strolled around Ortakoy for a while looking for fortune-telling rabbits before dinner, but there were none. Not a one. It was probably too late in the evening.
“To cheer you up,” she said, “I’ll buy you a lollipop. Lollipops are better than fortune-telling rabbits anyway.”
It wasn’t exactly a lollipop. It was macun. Macun is a cross between chewing gum and taffy, and is served by street vendors who have brass trays divided into sections, each containing a different flavor of macun. They twirl a stick in the flavor or flavors you request and serve it up to you. We had a choice of banana, strawberry, kiwi, orange, and cherry. At the insistence of my Beautiful Turkish Friend, I tried a mix of them. She had strawberry.
It was good. And sticky.
As it turns out, my Beautiful Turkish Friend’s aversion to fortune-telling rabbits and her preference for lollipops is the result of deep-seated childhood memories. It would seem, so she explained over our palamut, that when she was a girl, fortune-telling rabbits and macun were offered by the same man in her neighborhood of Istanbul.
“At the same time? Didn’t the rabbits eat the macun?”
“No, you silly man.” (Repuffing noise.) “Sometimes he had rabbits and sometimes he had lollipops. He never had them both at the same time.”
Which means, of course, that the presence of rabbits precluded the presence of lollipops, and my Beautiful Turkish Friend does like her lollipops.
“It’s not just that,” she said, when I offered this as a subconscious root cause of her aversion to fortune-telling rabbits. “It’s also that whenever he had his rabbits, I would worry to myself that if I paid the rabbits to tell my fortune, maybe the rabbits, which are not very intelligent creatures, would smell one of my friends and pick out her fortune instead, in which case I’d be stuck with a bad fortune and I would have wasted my money. Much better to spend my money on ice cream.”
“Aren’t you listening?” (Puffing noise.) “When there were rabbits in my neighborhood, there were no lollipops, so I had to settle for ice cream.”
Which made sense.
I should here mention that my Beautiful Turkish Friend has a beautiful name, which means, when translated, something like “feeling” or “sense.” It should also be said that I tend to find many Turkish women beautiful, and they exacerbate this by sporting names such as these. For instance, my Beautiful Turkish Friend has beautiful friends of her own with names like “Love,” “Happiness,” and “Mystery.”
Beats "Cindy"—let alone "Gertrude"—any day.
Anyway, the lack of fortune-telling rabbits in Ortakoy did mean that if I wanted to get my fortune told then it was going to have to be elsewhere.
A couple of days later I therefore set out for Sultanahmet. I had been staying near Taksim Square, which is the heart of Istanbul in a lively/shopping/business sort of way, but not in an historic sort of way. Sultanahmet is the historic center, where you’ll find the great tourist sights that you really, really, must see (including Topkapi and, one assumes, John-with-a-c, who works there as a guide). Since fortune-telling rabbits tend to hang out either near relaxing Turks (hence Ortakoy) or tourists, you have a good chance of finding them in Sultanahmet.
I decided to walk. I love walking from Taksim to Sultanahmet (not to mention that the ungodly traffic in Istanbul means that walking from any point A to any point B, except during the dead of night, is probably faster). You walk down the Istiklal Caddesi, which is one of the liveliest streets on the planet. It’s entirely pedestrian, really long, very wide, and bursting with life. What’s more, once the Istiklal Caddesi turns right a little, you can continue straight on, down the Galip Dede Caddesi, which is Istanbul’s music street.
Most cities have music streets—places where musicians go to buy instruments and equipment. In Paris, it’s the rue Victor Massé, behind Pigalle (I should write about that one day). In New York, there are a few, but West 38th has a strong bid. In Cairo, it’s Mohammed Ali Street, near the bazaar (great place too) … etc. The Galip Dede Caddesi is particularly developed, with literally dozens of stores selling guitars, pianos, traditional Turkish instruments, and the kind of cymbals one can only find in Turkey, cymbals that are greatly valued by drummers the world over.
This will bring you down to Galata Bridge, over the Golden Horn, where you’ll pass scores of people fishing (for little silver fish that probably only swim sideways every other month and it’s the season right now and we should go eat some), and therefore, on the other side, to the Spice Market.
This is definitely the right way to approach Sultanahmet. The Spice Market is a little bit like the Grand Bazaar (which we’ll get to shortly) in the way that Philadelphia is a little like New York—not as big, not as impressive, but with a charm and an important history all its own. Its construction was initiated in the 16th century by the mother of a sultan and completed many years later by the mother of another. (Mothers of sultans were often the real power behind the throne during the Ottoman empire.)
The Spice Market, or “Egyptian Bazaar” to the locals, smells real nice. You enter through its 400-year-old doors and are immediately hit with a wave of smell that you’ll find nowhere else. It’s the smell of the Orient, the most vivid remaining vestige of the exoticism that was once Istanbul. I had never smelled anything even vaguely like the Spice Market until … well, until I first went to the Spice Market. This is why it’s the perfect way to enter Sultanahmet: it gets you primed for the history of the place in a way that no guide ever could.
After the Spice Market, you really should go up to the Grand Bazaar.
Too many tourists approach the Grand Bazaar as a kind of ancient shopping mall. They go there to shop. Don’t do that, especially not the first time. Expect to spend money, yes, but think of it more as a money-sucking village, or even an entire money-sucking subculture. This is, in fact, not far from the truth. Years ago I once found myself in the bazaar in the company of an American friend who wanted to buy a Turkish rug (and who was more or less an expert in such things); a Turkish man from whom I had just bought a leather jacket (which I still wear regularly); and the leather salesman’s sister, who sold carpets and was in deep negotiation with my American friend about one or two pieces from her stock. As neither the young leather man nor myself were even remotely involved in this particular transaction, we got to talking over on the side, and he told me about his family history. He said that while they had always been merchants, they weren’t really part of the old guard in the bazaar—they had originally been from the Turkish community in the Crimea and had only moved to Istanbul, and the bazaar, recently.
“When was that?” I asked.
“About 200 years ago.”
The bazaar is a city in a city—a covered city, with arches and columns and a many-vaulted ceiling running along the wide thoroughfares and narrow alleys. In its center is the “Old Bazaar,” from the 15th century, which is built quite differently. Instead of the vibrant blues, yellows, reds, and whites of the rest of the world that is the bazaar, the Old Bazaar is built of red brick, its ceilings are much higher, and the merchants there primarily sell jewelry and antiques—weapons, etchings, magnificent carvings of ivory and meerschaum.
All that’s very well, but you’ll never come across a fortune-telling rabbit in the bazaar—street space is too precious. I therefore left the bazaar and set out on foot toward the epicenter of Sultanahmet: the space between the Hajia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.
I would normally go on about both of these, but the editors are already probably nervous about the length of this dispatch and they can easily be looked up. Suffice it to say that the Hajia Sophia is truly one of the wonders of the world, second in my book only to the Egyptian pyramids (which I suppose I should write about one day as well—I had a nasty run-in with a camel there once). What is more precisely to the point is that across from the entrance to the magnificent underground Byzantine cistern I found a young man with fortune-telling rabbits! My quest was over!
Sahan has been plying the fortune-telling rabbit trade for 14 years now (although he might have misunderstood—he looked to be too young) and he was very glad to introduce me to Bonçuk, Siri, and Pamuk, his three rabbits.
“Tell the rabbit your name,” he said, which seemed only fair since I already knew theirs. Upon learning my name, Bonçuk wiggled his nose the way rabbits do and then chose among the dozens of folded-up pieces of paper in front of him. He drew one with his little teeth, and Sahan took it and handed it to me. The other rabbits did nothing but observe; I assume they were in training. I, of course, understood not a word of the little piece of paper, but lo and behold, the fortune-telling rabbit trade has apparently modernized itself these past few years, because Sahan looked at the slip of paper, punched a number into a kind of portable voice thing he had, and proffered it to me. It explained, in English, that, according to Bonçuk, I would be successful if I could overcome one last obstacle. In the typically optimistic mood one feels after having one’s fortune told by a rodent, I assumed this means you’ll soon be seeing a novel of mine on the New York Times best-seller list.
Happy with my fortune, I went off to dinner at Yesil Ev, then for a nargile and tea at the Dervish Café, which is pretty much a perfect evening, despite the fact that I was, unfortunately, alone.
As I sat puffing my apple-flavored smoke under trees bathed in ethereal green light with the minarets of the Blue Mosque all lit up behind me, it struck me that this would be a good time to write something about Istanbul, so I took out my notes and wrote … well, this, and as I did so it struck me that often, life is good.