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Merhaba, Friends!


In Turkish, that’s the customary greeting for new friends. Or, at least, that was what we were told on our first day of Turkish lessons from Professor Toprak. “Everyone is a new friend in Turkey,” she told us, bright and early on what was only our second full day in Istanbul.

Now I’d like to express the same greeting to you. My name is Jessica Moes and I have been writing for Her Campus since my first year at St. Olaf (you can catch my past posts featuring Campus Celebrities by clicking on my little blue name above). This semester, I’m setting off with St. Olaf’s Term in the Middle East program, spending about a month each in the following places: Istanbul, Turkey; Fez, Morocco; Cairo, Egypt; and about one week in Israel. I’m going to be writing about some of my adventures here for Her Campus.

I know many people have questioned my decision to come to the Middle East at such a volatile time, and I know that recent uprisings in the region have many back in America (mainly my mother) constantly checking in to ask me just when I’m planning on coming home. Despite this though, the Middle East I’m encountering is much different from the one on TV, and the people I’m encountering are, just as Professor Toprak noted, “new friends.” Take the Simit Man. Every day on my long walk to school, past the multitude of adorable stray kittens and just to the right of the neighborhood mosque, I make a pit stop at a small, red stand where a middle aged man yells “Taze Simit!” (“Fresh Simit!”). The circular sesame bread he sells me costs only a lira (roughly 60-70 cents), and has become a part of my daily routine. As I continue my walk to school, down the winding university path that overlooks a breathtaking view of the Bosphorus, the simit sits warm in my hand, waiting to be consumed during the morning’s lecture.

Last week, a suicide bomber blew up a police station in Northern Istanbul. A few civilians died, and it made the headlines in the Western news outlets. However, in my little corner of Etiler, a much more newsworthy moment was taking place. As I strolled up to the counter with my 1 lira coin in hand, the Simit Man just smiled and shook his head at me.

“No pay today, Jessica,” he said, as he handed me a nearly perfect roll. It seemed especially endearing to me that this man remembered my name at all, simply because a week and a half had passed since I had haphazardly practiced my Turkish pronunciation for him the morning of my first language test (“Merhaba! Benim adim Jessica! Nasilsin?”). While I don’t continue to get free simit everyday, I did realize for the first time the truth to Professor Toprak’s introduction to Turkish hospitality on that first day of class.

I was reminded of this kindness only a few days later, when I found myself lost, wandering on the Asian side of Istanbul in a neighborhood called Kadikoy. I had been trying, unsuccessfully, for two hours to find a pair of pants lightweight enough to stand the Middle Eastern heat and big enough to fit my bum (all that simit was catching up to me!). In desperation, or perhaps by some divine will, I wandered into an art supply store. I’ve always taken comfort in art, and suddenly, surrounded by all the pencils and papers and paints, I felt a wave of calm wash over me. Far away, in Libya, protesters were marching into the American Embassy, chanting hateful slogans. But in my tiny corner of Istanbul, I was being carefully approached by an old man with an uncanny resemblance to Santa Claus.

“Merhaba!” he exclaimed.

It became clear quite quickly that he didn’t speak a word of English, and my limited Turkish could only get me so far. But as I gestured around the store and he raised his eyebrows in a fluid fashion, we both realized we could still find a way to communicate. Before I knew it, a half hour had passed. I had discovered that his daughter was studying film in Portugal, he had managed to comprehend that I was on a traveling program throughout the Middle East. We had discussed our favorite artists (his is Warhol, mine is Degas), and our favorite types of art. When he managed to get across to me that his was calligraphy, I was instantly aching to see him practice his craft.

He seemed to have the same idea as he picked up the sketchbook I had purchased halfway through our conversation, opening it to the front page and pulling out a pen. “Isim?” he asked, and after a little prodding and a flashback to my first day of survival Turkish, I realized he was asking for my name. I carefully wrote out my name, making sure each letter was especially clear, and then stepped back as he went to work, his pen sweeping across the page as it breathed new life into the moniker that had grown so old to me, each stroke adding depth and detail to the simple definition of who I am.

As I stood in that shop, fully relieved from the day’s trials, I realized that my mother’s fears for my safety were vastly unfounded, caught up in the frenzy of the nightly news cycle. The people I had been encountering, both close to my safety zone and very far away (even on a different continent), were defying my expectations for human interaction in this far off place. There will always be bad people, doing terrible things, in every corner of the world. But for every mean spirited person in this region, I am convinced that there many more kind ones, willing to bend over backwards to ensure the pleasant experience of a 20-year-old American wandering the streets of Istanbul.

The man finished my name with a flourish, and stamped the date on the bottom of the page. I tried desperately to pay him for his work, or his time, or anything, but he again refused to take my money beyond the sticker price of the sketchbook, pushing the bills back in my hand over and over again.

“You are a friend,” he said. “I do this for friends.”

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