Istanbul, this moment of stolen freedom

I spent seven days in Istanbul, but I wouldn’t say that I know it the way I know Amsterdam, BarcelonaVenice, or any other major city in which I’ve spent considerably less time.


In Istanbul I have to adjust to a new way of traveling. I am whisked from destination to destination. By a cabbie. By my uncle’s hired driver. Here’s a palace, a museum, a mosque, the Grand Bazaar. Am I in Europe? Asia? I couldn’t tell you. I have no sense of space or direction. No need to look at a map.

In Istanbul I have to confront an unfamiliar form of sexism. Lie low. Cover your head. Avert your gaze. But there’s more to it than that. Don’t try to participate in the conversation.

When you do, your guide Alper (who doubles as your uncle’s grad student) will mock the points of your itinerary. And then he’ll mock the fact that you even made one: Look at how cute and silly this woman is with her organized list.

But I’m not cute. Or silly. Underneath the structure I’m indocile. A man’s worst nightmare. And I can decide for myself whether or not the Spice Bazaar is worth seeing, thank you very much.

Spice Bazaar, Istanbul

It’s not just Alper. It’s also my own father.

It’s mid afternoon and we’re done for the day. But I’m not done and the light will soon be perfect for photographs. It doesn’t matter. He’s tired and he has spoken.

I can’t very well go off on my own in broad daylight. A woman alone in Istanbul? We all know how that ends.

Each day, I grow more restless and, consequentially, bolder.

On our drives, I start counting the single women I see walking. There are never fewer than 50.

I pull out that map I don’t need and plot public transportation routes between our flat in Beşiktaş and the Galata Bridge.* Sidewalks, tramways, ferries.

And one morning, I’m in the New Mosque while my father and Alper are stationed on a bench outside. I admire the intricate paint and tile-work and pause to read the speil in my guidebook. Apparently there’s a smaller mosque with better quality Iznik tiles only five minutes away. I make a break for it, knowing they won’t miss me. They’ll just assume I’m taking my time.

This moment of stolen freedom is my most cherished. Partly because it’s forbidden, mostly because now I’m the one in control. I weave through throngs of people. I hear the sounds, see the colors and smell the smells. Finally, I’m in Istanbul. Something bad could happen. But it won’t and it doesn’t.


I’m alive.

In Morocco I wasn’t allowed to enter a mosque. In Istanbul, I can enter, but once I do I have to stay behind a barrier. I’m still an infidel.

Rüstempaşa Mosque

Even if I were a practicing Muslim, I’d still be restricted. Only those with a cock between their legs can fully penetrate for the best view of mosque’s intersecting domes—her arching, voluptuous curves.

Even if I were a practicing Muslim, I’d still be a woman, and they’re confined to the side galleries.

We see through an angled lens.

Sultanahmet Mosque

*My father did eventually let me go to the Galata Bridge by myself at sunset, but not before days of arm-pulling, pleading, and convincing. It was worth it.

Chasing freedom

Galata Bridge at SunsetClick here for more photos from Istanbul.



  1. Jamie · · Reply

    Good for you for wanting to be adventurous and independent! It doesn’t sound (or look) dangerous at all, although I know you were duly cautious and alert, as always. I’m sure the culture there is stifling for Western-minded (and other) women; and then to be further stymied by men from your own culture (your father and uncle), in the name of “protectiveness”, must have been very frustrating.

    1. I was definitely on guard, as I always am, and as anyone—male or female—should be while traveling. Parts of the trip were indeed frustrating, but all in all it was incredible and I’m really glad to have it on my long list of travels from this year.

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