It was really cold today, in the 30’s, which is cold for Seattle. I reached into my jumble of cold weather clothes for something to wear and pulled out a really pretty scarf, one which I forgot that I owned. But I do remember buying it in Istanbul two years ago.
My friends and I were walking from the Grand Bazaar to the waterfront. We were making our way through the labyrinth of streets that constitute an outer market which surrounds the Grand Bazaar. In the Middle Ages this was the area of khans, or caravan serai, which were the terminus for traders who had plied the trading routes across Anatolia and Asia. There was the silver Khan and the gold khan. We stopped in the silver khan for a quick cup of tea, çai, looking out at the courtyard and bolstering ourselves against the cold.
Eventually we found the garment district. There were clothing shops everywhere and the streets were filled with shoppers. This is where the Turks shopped, not the tourists. There were shops for circumcision outfits and for evening dresses that might be appropriate for drag queens. There was a guy selling simit, sesame bread, the Turkish cousin of the sesame bagel. Eventually we found what my friends were looking for: the scarf shop.
They were in to scarves, I was not so much. Unlike the Grand Bazaar, where you would have a horde of men around you doing the hard sell, this shop had only the owner and his friend who were sitting around nonplussed by our presence. As my friends devoured the scarves I started to talk to the owner and his friend. I knew few Turkish words and they had little English. The owner’s friend started speaking Spanish to me and we fell into conversation.
I commented to him how strange it was to be speaking Spanish to a Turk in Istanbul. He told me that he was Ladino, a Sephardic Jew. He was speaking the Ladino language, a Medieval Spanish spoken by the Jews who were exiled from Spain in the 15th Century. The Ottoman Empire was one of the countries that welcomed them. His Spanish didn’t sound too Medieval to me and we continued talking. I told him that our friend Meli, our Turkish guide, with whom we are about to go to Syria, had Sephardic roots as well. Her family had come from Spain and then settled in Salonika, in what is now Greece. Generations later they moved to Istanbul and converted to Islam. He asked her family name, but he hadn’t heard of her.
The irony of speaking Spanish to a Ladino in Istanbul hit me at the time. Now that I look back on it I think of Istanbul as a tapestry, a mosaic of cultures and histories. Speaking Spanish in Istanbul is merely a quirk of history. I did buy a scarf that day,I don’t wear it often, but I wore it tonight.