by Sanjena Sathian
I went on a shopping spree for about twelve of the fifty hours I spent at home in Atlanta before coming to Turkey, buying clothes that fit under the tab of what we Glo-trippers have now dubbed “conservative-chic” (and generally recovering from finals season). So naturally, I’ve been paying a lot of attention to what people are wearing here in Istanbul – comparing wardrobes and doing research for future modest-clothing shopping expeditions.
In most of the city, just based on the clothes people have on, it feels like we could be walking the cobblestoned streets of any cosmopolitan European urban center – Vienna, Milan, London, Amsterdam. Istanbul feels, as several of us have said to one another in conversation, “comfortably Western.” There’s not much “foreignness” to deal with, and I’ve found myself accidentally calculating the price of my last cup of Turkish apple tea in euros instead of Turkish lira before remembering the obvious… we’re kind of in Europe, but certainly not in the EU, and we’re just across the bridge from Asia.
So today when Uzra and I went to explore a district called Fatih, what stood out most to me was how differently everyone was dressed. We knew it to be a fairly conservative area, so we covered our heads with scarves and dressed conservatively – she in her Indian kurti top and long pants, me in jeans and a full long-sleeved jacket. But still, as we strode through the alleys in Fatih, I felt eyes on us constantly, like nowhere else in the city.
While I’ve covered up for the occasional visit into a mosque here or there, remaining covered for an extended period of time was a brand new experience. I’m sure part of the reason we stuck out was because of my perpetual uncomfortable adjustments and readjustments of my makeshift hijab. But what was strangest by far to me is that covering my head didn’t make me feel protected from the stares like I thought it would. The men gathered outside the grocery store, gossiping and playing chess, did not avert their eyes from us. We saw no nods of solidarity from the women we passed, most of whom were clad in full burkas (a phenomenon compared to the rest of the city, where I’d probably seen fewer than 5 women in full burkas and only a small minority with even any form of head covering); no welcome smiles as we’ve been offered when we step into mosques, our heads covered in respect for a tradition that is not our own. Not every part of every city is prepared to greet tourists with enthusiasm, but it can be a shock to be reminded of that. Istanbul is not simply cloaked in bits of East and West here and there across the city’s sprawl; the differences across neighborhoods run deep, and a set of Euro-chic clothing is not quite enough to let me fit in just everywhere.