Sunday, November 02, 2008

Turkish 'Delights' Presented as Frightful

On the weekend I read a travel item in the Ottawa Citizen about Istanbul. Like much of the writing found in the pages of papers owned by Canwest News Services, it catered to a particular readership. One can only assume that the author of this fluff piece, Loraine Whysall, wrote it and submitted it for publication with the complete assurance that readers would be sympathetic to her myopic perspective on this ancient city.

On principle, I appreciate travel essays that provide useful information that has been gleaned from observation and experience, such as timely warnings with regard to safety issues and sage advice on respecting local customs.

In this particular item, the first two paragraphs centered on the author’s recoil when she was shuttled from the airport to the old quarters of Istanbul. It read as though her life's experience of cab rides had been restricted to Victoria. Has she visited cities such as Alexandria where traffic lights are notably absent and drivers navigate narrow streets where cars and tour buses must share space with souks, pedestrians, cyclists and even horse-drawn calèche? Her slightly hysterical tone suggests that she has not.

Then, she regaled her readership with her parochial reaction upon being awakened at dawn by the vibrant call to prayer. Again, one wonders at the chauvinism waved like a flag; why should this be surprising? Had she has done her research she would have known that her choice of hotel, in proximity to one of the world’s biggest mosques, would expose her to this daily tradition.

“Jarring …. blasted from loudspeakers …” - this is the twenty first century, Ms Whysall. Digital technology amplifies even the booming of bells from church steeples, which I suspect you would not have described in such rude terms.

Next morning she and her husband visited the Blue Mosque, the Aya Sophia and Topkapi palace, cramming in her typically tourist manner all three sites into a day’s speedy visit that Whysall claims to be comfortably doable. One would certainly not want her to be sidetracked by the opportunity of approaching these stunning architectural wonders with the veneration, respect and time their history warrants.

Whysall extolled her personal bravery, as shown by the extraordinary feat of allowing herself to bathe at the Cemberlitas hamam, in spite of her distaste for the presence of female attendants, unclad from the waist up. Perhaps she should have requested a blindfold, in order to be spared this unpleasant discomfort?

Her surprising appreciation of a lovely boat excursion on the Bosphorus was happenstance; she discovered it by listening to and following around better informed English tourists. Heaven forbid she might have found this cruise by interacting with local people.

Her descriptions of actual involvement with the residents of Istanbul seemed limited to “aggressive” merchants who followed her. My experience of the vendors who attempted to interest visitors in their merchandise was that they were persistent, courteous and ever optimistic that a commonly agreeable purchase price could be negotiated.

Ethnocentricity is not a virtue, and it is particularly irritating when it is blatantly on display in a travel piece. You’d be better served by avoiding travel pieces framed by Whysall's narrow world view. With regards to Istanbul, I’d recommend the Knopf guide to Istanbul as it is not marred by provincial and inappropriate remarks.

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