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Haggling and High Fashion: Shopping in Istanbul

Every trip to Istanbul is incomplete without a visit to the Grand Bazaar. Nestled in the heart of the old city, the dark stone walls encompass a maze of burly men and wide-eyed tourists, both attempting to get the upper hand in a bartering tug-of-war. Cats duck in and out of shops, nipping at the heels of young boys running trays of classic Turkish tea into the ritzier shops for the high-end customers who know absolutely nothing about the true price of a traditional woven rug.

During the second week of our trip, my friends Katie, Alex and I found ourselves lost in this labyrinth while attempting to set out and find some great souvenirs to send home. Dodging compliments and invitations to view silver, we wandered deep into the heart of the bazaar, pausing to examine wallets and ornate plates only until we were actually noticed by a shopkeeper.

We soon found ourselves tired of ducking around wry shopkeepers and gave in to the welcoming smile of a young man in front of a small store draped with elaborate scarves. He snapped his fingers, and almost instantly we were presented with three elma chais (apple teas) to sip on while we perused his stacks and stacks of fabric. Slowly he pulled us deeper into his shop, pulling silks and cashmeres from the walls and draping them around our necks, holding our cheeks as he turned us to the mirror, flirting shamelessly and almost alarmingly while we tried to just pick something and go.

Each time I tried on a scarf, the young man would hold my chin and beg me to look deep into his eyes, and then would ask me not only how beautiful the scarf was but how beautiful our eyes looked together in the mirror. One compliment was flattering, but the myriad of invasive comments became overwhelming, and the three of us looked for the exit, which, to our increased panic, had been shut while we had been trying on scarves. I tried to pay for a black patterned cashmere, and he took me back into a back room to wrap it, where he offered me an “exclusive deal” if I would just buy that silk scarf that looked great with my eyes and then give him a tiny kiss.

Disgusted, I took the cashmere and the silk and ran from the room, shoving maybe one bill too many into his hands as I left, refusing to get anywhere near him again. Back out in the open, Katie and Alex also bought one scarf each, at a price comparable to what I had paid for my two, ready to just get down to the spice bazaar and buy some dried fruit. However, as we were leaving, I felt a tug on my bag, and I turned around to see the young man shoving a small red silk scarf in it.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I did not mean to offend you. I just found you hauntingly beautiful.”

So obviously my confidence went through the roof and I left the bazaar feeling more special than the rows and rows and rows of dangling jewels near the exit. Whether he said that to everyone else didn’t matter, because I felt like I had won both in confidence and price (but seriously, three scarves for the price of one? Great).

While our experience in the bazaar was exciting and memorable (to say the least), I knew there was another way to shop in Istanbul, and Katie and I were just itching to try it. In recent years, northern Istanbul had seen the rapid development of numerous shopping centers and malls. Women in Turkey always seemed dressed to the nines, no matter their destination, and the classic fashionistas inside both of us were craving a trip to their fashion meccas. Conveniently, the halfway point of our trip marked the date of Istanbul’s Fashion’s Night Out, a spin-off of the original shopping experience in New York, hosted by Turkish Vogue. Late on September 13, numerous malls and big name shopping streets in Istanbul would open their doors late into the night for great deals and the ultimate shopping experience for the high class women of the city.''

Walking into Istinye Park Shopping Mall, it was easy realize that we were far from the “traditional” Middle East that we had originally discovered in Istanbul. Tall slender women roamed about in short skirts and sky high heels, their hair, dyed and decorated, falling free from their scalps with nary a headscarf in sight. The men, too, dashing and groomed, reeked of European mannerisms (as well as European cologne). There was no shameless catcalls, no creepy groping. Instead, we were welcomed into each store with a simple smile and a Turkish greeting (Hos Geldeniz!). We did not stick out as foreigners here.

The rest of the night passed quickly. We sipped on Caribou Coolers as we scoured the racks at H&M and Zara, Katie and I both finding simple and elegant purchases to whet our fancies. We munched on complimentary cupcakes at Tommy Hilfiger, ate chocolate covered strawberries at Diesel and took pictures of blonde, blue-eyed supermodels. The highlight of the night, perhaps, was the rave in XOOX, lights flashing and beautiful people letting loose. DJs blasted Katy Perry and the Wanted between Turkish artists like Yalin and Sila.

One may argue that my decision to go to Istanbul’s Fashion’s Night Out was materialistic and trivial (and indeed one member of our group did mutter this as Katie and I left the Superdorm), and yet I can’t help arguing that that experience, especially when placed in context with my time in the Grand Bazaar, says something explicit about Turkish culture, too. As tourism to Istanbul grows exponentially, the city has attempted to form an explicit identity in order to make itself as appealing of a destination as possible. The issue, of course, is determining what, exactly, this identity will be.

On one hand, Istanbul is a city of history. Byzantine Christians and Ottoman Muslims both held high stakes here for centuries, leaving beautiful monuments to their splendor. The Hagia Sophia. The Basilica Cisterns. Christ’s Chapel in Chora. Dolmabache Palace. Each site draws the attention of millions around the globe, be they faithful religious followers or simply wide-eyed wanderers like myself. The Grand Bazaar is representative of this touristic appeal. Constructed in 1455, the bazaar is representative of an old style of shopping. As you meander your way through the labyrinth of bright silk scarves and ornate inlaid backgammon boards, past beautiful leather bags and the finest Turkish tile work, you are encouraged to step back in time. As you haggle over the price of a tea set - “One hundred lira.” “Fifty.” “Ninety lira.” “Sixty.” “Seventy-five?” “Evet, lutfen.” – you become yet another trader on the silk road, taking in a historical tradition that is as old as Istanbul itself.

But, in a way, this feels kitschy. I cannot use the term “inauthentic,” per se, but there is something very unrealistic in this manner of shopping. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of the Turkish Republic, Ataturk’s desire to Westernize modern Turkey has revitalized the way Turkish people live their lives today, including how they go shopping and what they buy. Turkish citizens rarely find themselves deep in the Old City, wandering through the bazaar (unless, maybe, they are looking for fine jewelry). Instead, in the Northern part of the city, closer to our dear Bogazici University, a new Istanbul has arisen. This Istanbul is intent on defining itself as a modern city, on par with Paris or London or New York in the world market of art and leisure. Instead of Korans and holy services, beer, nargile and dancing define Friday nights. Calligraphy and tile glazing has been replaced with avant-garde modern art by Gulsun Karamustafa. And, obviously, shopping for high profile names at full price in the new glitzy shopping malls has trumped any desire to haggle over an antique rug.

Being able to experience both of these extremes, instead of focusing just on one or the other, has made my time in Istanbul feel more complete, more rounded, because neither perspective truly feels complete without reflecting back on the other. Whether buying scarves or stilettos, carpets or cashmere sweaters, daggers or drop-waist dresses, shopping in Istanbul can give you this full image – as long as you experience them both.

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