Thursday, May 22, 2014

Passport Control

Turkish Flag in Sultanahmet
With a backpack pulled heavy over my shoulders and a second bag slung over my chest, I stumble off a plane and into a cavernous Istanbul terminal.  I've spent most of 24 hours in transit: eight hours on a ferry, two different airports, two different flights.  And now, Istanbul.  It's hard to tell what time it is.

I slept a bit on the ferry and napped a little at the gate in Rhodes.  But I'm zealously anticipating a bed, a firm mattress, a long night's sleep.  I haven't brushed my teeth in 24 hours or so, my eyes are itchy, and the guy I see in the bathroom mirror needs a shower.  Badly.

But I've come to Istanbul from Greece, that is, across an international border; and that means PASSPORT CONTROL.  And, as it turns out, hundreds and hundreds have come with me, even tonight, even this late, and all of us have to pass through PASSPORT CONTROL.  The line isn't really a line at all: but a winding, zigging, zagging labyrinth of arms, legs, weary faces, headscarves, wrinkled suits, tattooed moms and dads, tired toddlers, grizzled old men.  And me.  All of us, I imagine, anticipating the same sweet sleep, all of us achy and tired, all of us in the queue.  Or what passes for the queue at PASSPORT CONTROL in Istanbul.

Dad and Son at Blue Mosque
This isn't just a scene, it's a feast for the senses: a couple of
dozen languages (in the first zig alone); all kinds of head-wear and foot-wear, tattoos and piercings; faces and skin of every imaginable hue; the musty smell of fatigue and hope.   And a whole salty sea of people.

The whole scene should be, could be, maybe really is daunting, even exasperating: waiting with stories I can't read, and neighbors I can't know, and all of us waiting to get on with it.

Aya Sofia, Sultanahmet
But something else happens to me, even in the first zig as it turns to zag.  I find myself enjoying it, even reveling in it.  A line of unknown length and duration.  A puzzling labyrinth whose bending ways are a mystery to me.  As zigging, zagging lines go, I watch all these faces shuffling by, pulling kids along, fidgeting with headscarves and backpacks.  And then we zag again, and I see all the same faces shuffling by again, and pulling the same kids along, and fidgeting with the same headscarves and backpacks.  And these strangers -- whose stories I'll never know, whose destinations I can only imagine, whose musty passing I note -- become something like my people, something like my flesh, something like me.

Aya Sofia: Mary (left) and Name of Allah
And just for a moment -- or, as it turns out, just for 45 minutes -- we belong to one another.  Turks and Ethiopians.  Muslims and Christians.  Fully covered women and almost completely uncovered teens.  American pastors and Armenian grandmas.  German seniors on holiday and business moguls planning a deal.  It's only PASSPORT CONTROL -- and I can't promise I'll love it the next time -- but tonight it's like heaven on earth.  And I'm waiting my turn.
Rose, Topkapi Palace (Ottoman Empire)