The Istanbul Bazaar

But before getting on the Persian train, let me show you some pictures on Istanbul. If only because I won’t be able to show too many pictures on Persia – later I will tell you why. But also in order to winkle Wang Wei (or Pei Di) out of his island, so that he also would go and pay a visit to the marvels of the Polis.

Among these marvels the bazaar stands on the first place.

The bazaar was the great legend of the 80’s. Hundreds of buses left from Hungary for the easternmost available East, the bazaar of Istanbul with thousands of common Marco Polos on their boards who gloriously brought home the treasures salvaged through the Turkish, Bulgarian, Serbian, Romanian and Hungarian borders, the cheap gold, lingerie and leather jackets. At all of these borders they had to pay an informal percentage to the custom-house officers, the accidents were frequent on the terrible roads of the Balkans, and it was no rare occasion that a heroin smuggler was caught on the bus: in such case the whole bus was held up for several days at the border. But all that did not matter. When I asked the wife of our carpenter, Mrs. Cinege who once a month left from a small village in Northern Hungary for an Istanbul shopping to round off in this way the salary she received as a book-keeper, about what can be bought in the bazaar, she devoutly lifted her several dioptre glasses to the sky and said: “Everything”.

The bazaar begins to the north of the east-western main road Millet Caddesi with the proper Grand Bazaar, covered with a multitude of small domes (Kapaliçarşi, that is Covered Bazaar, on the left side of the map inserted in an earlier post), and from here it spreads uninterruptedly as far as the Egyptian or Spice Bazaar encircled with a high wall at the foot of the Galata Bridge, in the haven of Eminönü where once the ships carged with Indian spices used to sail in. And to the west of the Grand Bazaar begins the Book Bazaar, in whose small shops one can buy both modern academic publications and medieval manuscripts. Here I studied for a long time the gilded miniatures of a Persian Renaissance medical manuscript taken to leaves: an aga sitting on a cushion was following with his finger the way of the coffee through his own open intestines, and in the crown of a full-page grinder fire-covered djinns were hammering the infernal anvil.

On the way to Persia we spent an afternoon in the bazaar. Having got beyond the large corridors profusely provided with Russian, German and Spanish inscriptions, the tourist-absorbing streets of jewellers, leather goods makers and antiquarians, we lingered for several hours in the labyrinth of the back-corridors, former caravansarays transformed into internal courtyards, fountains created as pious foundations and tea houses squeezed into narrow corners. In a cross street a French couple studied in a puzzle the large unfoldable map of the bazaar. I asked them where they had bought it, but they told they had received it as a gift from a merchant in addition to the carpet. As a consolation, they told me that it is not easier at all to get one’s bearing with it either.

However, we really scouted the bazaar only the second time when, on the way home from Persia, we again stopped by for an afternoon. By this time we were past the bazaars of five Persian big cities, we were acquainted with the prices and merchandise, we knew where it is worth to stop by and where not, and the much cheaper Persian offer made it superfluous to enter in a large number of the shops anyway.

At this time we discovered the Afghan quarter in the northwestern corner of the bazaar, not far from the Yorgancilar gate. Here we finally found those robust nomadic jewels we had so much sought for in Persia, the rubab, the Afghan lute I have wished to buy for a long time, and the colorful handwoven fabrics of the nomads of the northeastern Persian border region. And all this for such a low price that reminded us rather of Persia, not of Turkey. And as a bonus, we could speak in Persian with the merchants who received with a joyful surprise that so many thousand miles away from their homeland they can speak in their mother tongue with a Rumi foreigner. The common language suddenly created familiarity, and at this occasion it was palpable that Persian is the common cultural language of this immense region from Istanbul to Kashmir and from the delta of the Volga and the Turkoman steppe to the Persian Gulf just in the same way as French was of Europe even a century ago.

In the narrow shop of Öztürk we see some nice modern bags, their kelim combined with a beautiful cherry-red leather. Here, however, they demand a serious price, about a hundred euros per piece. After the Persian prices this sum seems an extravagance, although later we see some similar (albeit not so beautiful) pieces in Budapest for three times more. Kata has to be convinced by force to buy one, for her bag has just been spoiled. Again and again we return to this shop to make a decision. The high, unctuous salesboy already greets us as old acquaintances, with selected courtesies. He has some apple tea served for us, and establishes that I’m dressed like a Sufi. He turns out to be a Sufi apprentice as well, and when I mention that I love Rumi, he nods with appreciation. As we are leaving with the bag, I hear him to give a detailed account about our pedigree and occupation to his friends who in the meantime gathered together in the shop.

In the musical instrument shop of Ali Baba (which is a much more pleasant place than what you would suppose after the design of their card) we browse among the Turkish lutes for a long time, I try the long necked saz and the Turkish oud, smaller than the Arabic one. The boy in the shop plays in a Turkish folk band, and he undertook this job so that he could calmly practice on the saz in the afternoons. He says he individually tests each instrument at reception, and in fact they have carefully prepared lutes with a pleasant sound. And they are not expensive either: the saz’s are between 70 and 300 lira (about 40-170 euro), while the best ouds are below 400 lira (about 220 euro). We take turns at playing on the instruments, I try to imitate his Turkish melodies, while he changes from Turkish folk tunes to blues and then to ragtime on the saz. In the meantime a bull-necked, bald-headed customer gesticulates in English in front of the other instrument shop over the corridor: “Ho’ much this smo’ guitar? Ho’ much you gimme that?” The boy listens with a smile to the loud bargaining. “An American?” I ask of him. “No,” he says, “an Israeli.” “They are not bad customers,” he adds, “they usually do buy, but they speak too much before.” In the meantime a French woman buys a guitar of him as well, and now she distrustfully inquires whether its case is new (apparently it is). This trade needs a lot of patience. For example, I don’t buy any instrument either after having tried so many. At least not now. Perhaps when I come the next time, inshallah, for one keeps coming back to the bazaar.

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