I took the ferry to Eminönü. I was off to see a man about some boza. Since reading A Strangeness In My Mind; Orhan Pamuk's story of boza seller Mevlut, and his life wandering the streets of Istanbul, I had a desire to sample this mysterious drink.
I took a fig from the paper bag and bit into it. It was sweet and sticky and bright red inside. The boy next to me was tossing pieces of his Simit to the gulls hovering beside the boat. Almost close enough for us to grab them from the sky. I made short work of the figs I'd purchased from the market in Kadikoy and when we disembarked found myself hovering over a Simit stand.
The road to Vefa was steep and wound through a crumbling old neighbourhood. I came across an old abandon place and ventured into the unkempt garden. The house was at least three stories tall, and from the front porch, a spectacular view of the city. To the left, there was a huge cavity. Like a giant tooth had been ripped from the earth. And on the other side of the pit, women hung from the windows of wooden homes that were dark splinters of their former selves. I wondered if vagrants occupied the place and decided to retreat to the relative safety of the road.
I followed the street into a maze of ramshackle houses. Women sat on the sidewalks and children scurried about like street rats. My presence drew stares and began to wonder how far off the beaten track I had wandered. But I pushed on; I had to see a man about some boza.
Before long a mosque appeared and the neighbourhood took on a more gentrified appearance. Then at the end of the street, I found the place Isought. Vefa Bozacisi has been around since 1876 and is the oldest boza joint in Istanbul.
'Merhaba,' I greeted the two men standing behind the wooden bar. They wore white uniforms and one of the men had on an envelope cap with a mesh top. He looked like a burger flipper from a greasy spoon. Blue tiles decorated the walls behind the counter, were bottles of boza and other concoctions stood waiting on shelves.
'Hoşgeldiniz,' the man without the cap welcomed me.
'A cup of boza, please.'
'Please, ' he said, gesturing to a tray of boza filled glasses on the wooden counter.
People have been making boza-like drinks as far back as 9000 BC, but it was only during the 10th century that the condensed milk-like drink became known as 'boza'. During the Ottoman reign, boza became an attractive commodity, spreading across the Empire. Until, during the 16th and 17th centuries, someone discovered people were spiking this otherwise healthy beverage with opium. Boza survived the opium scandals and alcohol prohibition to became popular with sultans and aristocrats. Today, in some neighbourhoods, wandering peddlers brave the winter weather and the fangs of Istanbuls street hounds to sell boza. ‘Boo-zaaa!’, they call, dragging around large canisters of the sweet, slightly sour tasting fermented liquid. ‘Boo-zaaa!’, they call bringing faces to windows. '‘Boo-zaaa!’.
I looked up from my cup of boza, now decorate with the roast chickpeas I had procured from the store across the street. Two men were seated at a table outside a small restaurant, and beckoning me over. I walked closer and stood before them.
'How many megapixels is the machine?' asked the one with the bushy hair.
'No idea,' I lied.
'I've always wanted my picture taken in an American style place, will you take our picture?'
'But this isn't an American place,' I said.
'No matter,' said the bushy haired man.
A tale told by Rolf Potts came to mind. On his travels through Istanbul, he'd hooked up with a couple of friendly looking local types only to wake up in a park wearing nothing but his underwear. I was in no mood to be roofied, stripped of my worldly belongings and left naked for the hounds in one of the city's parks.
I snapped off a few pictures and showed them the shots.
'Join us for some tea,' the bushy one said pulling up a chair.
This is it, I thought. The fiend is going to give me a cup of spiked tea.
'I still have some boza, thanks.'
'Please sit,' insisted the bushy one, ' my name is Mateen. This is my friend Syed. He is a refugee from Iran. He's not welcome there anymore.'
'I'm Jean, from Italy. Are you from Istanbul?'
'No, Afghanistan. I had to leave home quickly, and the Turkish government welcomed me. Come brother, they said, you are welcome here.'
'Why did you leave Afghanistan?'
'I was a translator with ISAF, and there was some trouble with the Taliban. I had to leave, quickly.'
It turned out my overactive imagination had pegged these two poor refugees for thieving bastards before even giving them the benefit of the doubt.
'How do you like Istanbul?' I asked.
'It's good, but I want to go to Greece,' said Mateen.
'Greece? Why Greece?'
'I want to get into the EU.'
'You do realise things aren't much better there. In fact, you'd probably do better to stay here in Istanbul.'
'There is more work there.'
'Life is more expensive there.'
We talked about their predicament and smuggling routes into the EU. I told them I'd found the Romanian border control lacking and perhaps they should cross the Black Sea and swim up the Danube before winter came. Then, when I had finished my boza, I bid them farewell and left.
The little streets filled with the adhan and I found myself following the voice of the muezzin to a nearby mosque, were a man and his cat sat guarding an empty parking lot.
Outside the Suleymaniye Mosque, men were performing the ritual of wudu, breaking with normal life and preparing to enter a state of worship. I found the visitors entrance where women borrowed scarves and we all abandoned our shoes before entering the mosque.
I've always felt more comfortable in mosques than in churches. More at a peace. Perhaps it has something to do with the macabre images that line the walls in churches. How does one feel at peace with images of some poor soul being tortured or dragged into the pits of hell? I sat beside an Indian girl shooting pictures of the ceiling and decided she made a more interesting study than the roof. Obviously, the reason woman are required to wear headscarves; prevent men like me from the distractions of worship.
I followed the same route home through the maze of poverty. Trading one lira pieces for pictures along my way.