Postcard from Istanbul

21 September 2020. Updated 22 September 2020.

Unfortunately, the “city of mosques” has become “the city of maskes” as Istanbul pretends to play its part in managing the COVID-19 pandemic. But before fellow sceptics stop reading or cross Istanbul off their Covid bucket list, there is good news. Despite fairly rigid enforcement of “maske, maske!” in shops, public transport and museums, we walked the streets naked – except for our clothes – without challenge or even a second look from the Istanbulis. The face mask here is not considered a virtue signal, rather it is considered a talisman. It does not matter where it is worn, so long as it is worn. Under the nose, under the chin, on the elbow (yes!) and I even saw one person with a mask on the back of his neck. These all seemed acceptable and, in fact, there were plenty of people who, like us, had simply abandoned them. The police were not enforcing mask wearing and were among the worst offenders for not doing so. Our hotel was next to the Karakoy Police station where Istanbul’s finest sat sunning themselves daily, ready to fall asleep at a minute’s notice. They watched us walk past several times a day without comment.

In any case, such is the Istanbul love of street eating that in many of the back streets, if you were walking down the middle wearing a mask, you would be in the minority as unmasked diners packed the restaurants and shouted over loud music, hugged, kissed and shook hands like good Istanbulis are wont to do. As far as we could see, the bodies were not piling up on street corners.

Otherwise, among mask wearers, almost any excuse could be found for unmasking including smoking – a major cause of unmasking – speaking on a mobile phone or just speaking while walking. Anyone from the temperate UK who considers wearing a face mask a minor inconvenience or a price worth paying, please answer that question again after 30 mins in the heat and humidity of Istanbul. They are a complete nightmare and definitely not a price worth paying –even if they were effective. We did have to wear them in the Grand Bazaar and the Dolmabahce Palace, so we know. I saw no provision for exemption and, having read I will never see the world again by Ahmet Altan, I didn’t fancy my chances with the police if they were summoned to settle an argument with a shopkeeper.

Our hotel – the Novotel Bosphorus – did ask us to wear masks in the lobby so they got very little of our business. Breakfast, cocktails and dinner were all taken outside whereby we could walk unmasked to a bar or restaurant, sit down, eat and drink and return unmasked to the lobby of the hotel. There must be a clause in trades description legislation about 5-star hotels providing 3-star service and continuing to call themselves 5-star hotels. They should describe themselves as 5-star (3-star during pandemics) hotels. Our hotel boasted how clean our room was, how we had to vacate during cleaning and how all unnecessary items had been removed for the duration of the pandemic. If they had removed any more, we would have been sleeping on the floor and sharing a bar of soap. But we were glad to be out of the UK and we enjoyed ourselves immensely. Under normal circumstances, I imagine this is a very nice hotel.

On the way out from the UK, the journey through Terminal 5 involved a few masked sections. But the secret in the lounge was to keep ordering food and drink and to sit – unmasked – like the vast majority in the lounge until it was time to board. On board, once the curtain was drawn behind us and the BA food parcels were distributed – there being no normal meal service in Club Class at the moment – it was masks off for the duration with no attempt at enforcement by the cabin crew. Thankfully, a normal drinks service ensued which helped us forget we were in the middle of a global pandemic. The biggest inconvenience was not being able to take hand luggage on board and the subsequent wait at the carousel. I gave up putting luggage in the hold over a decade ago. Also, Club Class passengers boarded last as the new system involves boarding from the back – except for people at the back who arrived late.

Istanbul is one of my favourite places and I visit regularly. Despite this, I had never visited the Hagia Sophia and my wife, who had, was keen to show me. We were in and out in five minutes with my wife muttering unmentionable words. In a city with more mosques than any in the world – three and a half thousand of them – Prime Minister Erdogan has decided that it needed one more and has Islamified this once great symbol of Islamic-Christian understanding. It is now a fully functioning mosque with all Christian iconography obscured, women asked to cover their heads and all to remove shoes at the door. We were not allowed to carry our shoes and, being unwilling to leave several hundred pounds worth of Merrell sandals at the mercy of the public, we cut our visit very short. Over the years, Turkey generally, and Istanbul in particular, have become more Islamified. It was very rare years ago to see a hijab or a niqab, but they are very common now. Islamic virtue signalling is increasing among Turkish women and this has been added to by the two million Syrian refugees who now inhabit Istanbul. These are visible, exclusively as women, begging on the streets with children in arms and scavenging food from bins.

Otherwise, life seemed normal in Istanbul with most things functioning as usual. Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence was temporarily closed. I am not sure if Turkey’s Nobel Laureate has taken a decision in the face of the pandemic or if further additions to the museum are planned, but for any Pamuk fan and especially if you have read the book (The Museum of Innocence), next time you are in Istanbul it is worth visiting.

On the return journey we were panicked into purchasing wifi on the plane to ensure that we completed our online track and trace form for entry to the UK without which, apparently, we “would be denied entry to the UK”. On arrival at Heathrow nobody checked our form and despite being told to have our temperatures checked, nobody did that either.

So, we are back in the UK with new cushion covers from the Grand Bazaar, some Turkish ceramics and no sign of a dry cough, loss of taste or smell and no fever. Any change in these circumstances and you will be among the first to know.

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