A jasmine projected its stalk filling every part of my body with green soft branches and moved up to the crown of my head as my friend painted a picture of me in Istanbul: “I can see you sitting in a café writing or reading a book, I feel you would fit easily in Istanbul.” That pleasant feeling grew in my lower belly, and the Jasmine just needed to be rooted so it could blossom.
My plane began its descent into the Ataturk airport in Istanbul. I was sitting on the aisle, but I couldn’t resist looking at those blazed rooftops by the afternoon sun and the scintillate water, which magnified the light and transformed the surroundings into a magical painting. Half of my body climbed over the person next to me who was sleeping, his head resting on the window. There was Istanbul, stretching its body between the Marmara and the Black Sea, like a beautiful lady, she lay on her tummy to tan her backside while the Bosphorus filled the hollow of her back with its refreshing water, which flows from both sides and connects the two seas.
Istanbul looked like a good sorceress to me, a loving lady who can’t decide whom she loves more, so she rests part of her body in Asia and the other part in Europe. With her body she unites both. And I wanted to unite both parts within me: the Middle East and Europe. In many things I am still a Middle Eastern woman, and in many others I am European. But instead of uniting both, they were always in struggle. I’d always activate one side over the submission of the other and so I lived in dualism in many aspect of my life during the last years. My eyes watched that magnificent view while my mind was busy trying to solve that equation of dualism and union. The wheels hit the ground and pulled me back to my seat and to reality. Istanbul enchanted me from the moment I stuck my head to the plane’s window. Maybe it was the perfect timing to arrive at that afternoon hour when the bronzed city glowed after the long hours under the sunshine. Maybe because Istanbul was beyond my expectations, before coming I was thinking how much it would be different than the Middle East, but it already looked different.
I walked to the man behind the glass and gave him my passport with a stressed smile; he smiled back. I had no visa, “What if he doesn’t allow me in?” I thought. But he checked my passport for a minute or two and stamped it, “welcome to Istanbul,” he said returning my passport. I almost asked him “is that all?” I moved a few feet away. I couldn’t control the contradicted contraction in my dilated face, my widely opened eyes, which now were filled with tears, and my big smile that almost reached both my ears. But I had to control a powerful energy that was building up in me. As if there was a big bird inside me and it was ready to expand its wings, fly and shriek. I wanted to scream, cry, and laugh out loud. I couldn’t believe that it could be so easy and smooth to enter Turkey; having a visa on my passport was always a mandatory before I enter any country and still it had never been this simple even with the visa shining in one of my passport pages, which is filled with colorful visas and stamps. I was welcomed to Istanbul without a visa or any formality.
As I got in the taxi, the driver tried to chat with me, but, to my luck, he quickly gave up, as his English was very limited, and I just wanted my eyes to fly. It wasn’t long before my head was turning from side to side trying to capture everything at all angles. I surprised the driver when I pushed my head next to him as a great huge and darkened grey aqueduct approached the car, then I rushed turning to the back, kneeling on my seat and turning my head upside down to get a better view of it through the back window. I thought it was the city’s ancient façade, but later I knew it was the Valens Aqueduct, which was built in the year 368 and used to be the water supply system during the Roman times.
The smell of the sea slipped through the closed windows, and I stuck my face to the glass waiting to meet it again. We passed the Eminönü bridge where people walked on both sides, and tourists waited with their cameras ready to capture their best shots, a few ferries lurched into the port while others were ready to drift away carrying their passengers, and the seagulls circled the air watching over water and ground. We passed Karaköy where people sat in cafés sipping their drinks while watching over the Bosphorus; they seemed to be meditating from far away.
As we started climbing the hill, I turned back to enjoy another beautiful view from a different angle; huge mosques were visible now around the city; their glamor emphasized by the four lit minarets that framed each giving a new glow to Istanbul. We reached the top of a steep hill, the car slid between lines of cafés packed with people. It seemed everyone was out of their home; everyone had a date with their loved ones or simply with their loved café. The hubbub of the people sounded like a sea waves. It felt like an invitation to jump in. This was Cihangir [Jihangir] the hipster artistic area, and there was my hotel, and here is where I later rented an apartment and where I still live.
“Istanbul is an amazing place.” I say when Turkish people ask my impression of the city. They’d tell me “Not all of Istanbul is amazing, but you live in a cool area.” I say, “To me, Istanbul is Cihangir, Cihangir is my home. I have my own bakkal (the sales man in a grocery shop) who thinks he can teach me Turkish by speaking in slow and simple sentences with me. I have my hairdresser who knows how to bring the beauty out in me. I have Turkish friends who are always ready to help me. Very often I bump into people I know when I walk on the streets. I belong to Istanbul and it belongs to me; a feeling I’d never had even in Syria.” I tell them “Where the hell can you have the best breakfast in the world till 5p.m in a café that at 7p.m puts on its soirée dress and become a famous bar, and then might also become a club after midnight?”
The blossoming Damascene jasmine in me is rooted in Istanbul; my Middle Eastern origins and my European open mind are finally united. Istanbul has bewitched me, freed me of my duality and I became the Syrian woman who is in love with Istanbul. And the huge white bird in me takes off sometimes, circle the sky calmly because it can always go back to its new home.
And here I am now, sitting in a café with my laptop in front of me. I left the warmth of my apartment, walked the uneven old tiles, took the stairs, walked up a soft hill and entered a café I am frequenting since I discovered it three months ago. There are many cafés closer to my place. Cafés and antique shops compete for spaces in Cihangir, but here, I know the waitresses who speak English, and they know me very well. If I forget my wallet at home, they don’t mind, “It is ok Diana, when you come next time,” they’d tell me. This café is part of my big home.
Maybe I had to pass through the tough life I had before coming here so I could grow. Maybe it was the only path that was meant to lead me to Istanbul. And maybe saying what I said is an excuse for my cowardliness. I don’t judge anything in my past, I don’t judge myself. But there is something that I am sure about it now: that there are doors that won’t open unless we close others. As soon as I closed the door on my marriage, doors started opening to me; Istanbul opened its grand high gates to me, on 12th January 2015 Istanbul granted me the resident permit offering me a new fresh life.