The Sounds and Sights of Interfaith Promise

Published October 11, 2018 by Dunya Habash

Coexistence, Istanbul, Interfaith, Living In Harmony, Syrian Refugees

Dunya Habash reflects on Istanbul's interfaith landscape after conducting fieldwork there with Syrian musicians in summer 2018.

View of Istanbul from Eminönü Pier (Photo credit: D Habash)

The deep blue colour of the Bosporus Sea draws me to the window of my flat in Beşiktaş.I feel calm and thankful to be in Istanbul. A few minutes ago, I heard the call to prayer ring from the various mosques nearby and my heart skipped a beat. It's been a while since I've heard a proper call to prayer ringing through the air. I try to harmonise with it for a little, catching a few of the beautiful quarter tones that give the melody its "eastern" sound.

So my fieldnotes for my first day in Istanbul remind me. I spent the first few days in the city exploring Istanbul's historic streets, monuments and architecture. I tried to absorb as much sensory information as possible, taking note of the sounds, sights and smells as I walked past various cafes along the Bosporus in Kadiköy, crossed from the Anatolian to the European side of the city on a ferry, and ate delicious kebab in Osmanbey. I was enchanted by the numerous religious buildings scattered throughout the city, each sacred building, whether a mosque, church or synagogue, breathtakingly beautiful. What was more fascinating was that in some districts, the sacred spaces were only a few hundred feet from each other; in Ortaköy, for example, a mosque stands next to a synagogue, both across the street from a church. The most iconic example of the physical closeness between the sacred buildings is, of course, the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque facing each other across Sultan Ahmet Square in Istanbul's historic centre.

Synagogue in Ortaköy (Photo credit: D Habash)

The physical landscape of Istanbul, this meeting point of Europe and Asia, seemed to suggest that there exists a healthy coexistence between its various faith communities. Yet, when I started interviewing the Syrian refugee community now living in the city, the juxtaposition of Istanbul's interfaith landscape with the reality of how people live together in the city was striking. Most Syrians live, shop, and conduct business in one section of the metropolis known as the Fatih district on the European side. I spent most of my time interviewing Syrians in Fatih, or "Little Syria". Upon entering the district, you see Arabic script on signs and windows, a flurry of headscarves and burkas, and Ottoman religious monuments scattered through the streets. I felt like I was entering another world after passing through Fatih's Roman arches, a natural gate into the district, especially when coming from Taksim and Beşiktaş on the other side of the city full of Europeans, Western stores and neo-classical architecture.

Mosque near Galata Tower (Photo credit: D Habash)

Is it enough to share physical space in order to count as 'coexistence'? Can we truly say we live together if we never leave our respective neighbourhoods and sacred spaces, if we never enter the sacred spaces of others, if we never communicate? To illustrate the nuance I am trying to make, think of a restaurant experience in a multicultural city. People of all beliefs and backgrounds enter through the same door, they sit in the same physical space and they receive the same menus. A Muslim family chooses a halal option and dines while a Christian couple across the room orders a bottle of wine and a group of Jewish professors carry on with their meeting around the corner. All are eating in the same physical space at their respective tables.

This is the most basic form of coexistence: shared space. They are sitting side by side, but there is no engagement among the groups. What happens if instead, they spoke to each other during their respective meals, or better yet, they pushed the tables together and talked to a fellow diner instead of talking across space. Now, they speak across the table in the process of sharing a meal together, a long-lasting metaphor for community across history, and especially within the three Abrahamic faiths. Perhaps this is what we should really mean when we use the word 'coexistence'.

Church in Karaköy (Photo credit: D Habash)

Throughout my time in Istanbul, I walked through Istiklal street near Taksim Square almost daily to observe various musicians performing their respective musics: Kurdish, Arab, Persian, Flamenco, Black Sea music, Turkish, and even American blues. Each band or artist played a few steps away from another, each with their respective crowd, a diverse crowd representing various ethnicities from across the world, listening and swaying to the music. One day, I stopped to listen to a Turkish man performing a melancholic Turkish melody on his clarinet. I noted an Arab woman becoming one with the music, turning her head at the end of each cadence with her eyes closed and hands on her chest. It was powerful to see her connecting so deeply to the (Turkish) music. This profound communication is what coexistence could mean. This is the promise of Istanbul's landscape.

This article is written by Dunya Habash, a researcher at the Woolf Institute working on the Living in Harmony project which explores interfaith encounter in the Middle East through music.

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