There are times in one’s life when you meet someone, even very briefly, and there is a mutual sense of maybe knowing one another without any explicitly shared history, of having an inexplicable connection or resonance, of a simple smile of some recognition while passing one another in a stairwell. Not that anything much is made of it at the time… the only immediately registered feeling may be just a little bit of curiosity. This describes my encounters with Birsen while we were both at the Sakyadita Conference on Women in Buddhism this past January. We did not even talk together that much at the conference, but at the end of it we exchanged email addresses. When I told her of my travels she insisted on my coming to visit her in Istanbul if I ended up coming through Europe.
It was over four months after the conference while I was in Cambodia that I started to entertain the notion of traveling back to the US through Europe. It all started when I found out about the sesshin in Stockholm with Tenshin Reb Anderson. I started making preliminary inquiries. I emailed Birsen and told her I was thinking of it. Within a few minutes she emailed me back saying how uncanny it was: she had been talking about our meeting at Sakyadita and the inexplicable connection between us just the day before with a friend! Needless to say, the response I got from my inquiry was more than enough for me to book a flight from Stockholm. Birsen encouraged me to come stay for at least two months(!), but unfortunately that was way more time than I had for this trip. It would have to just under two weeks instead…
I flew from Stockholm through Riga and into Istanbul’s Sabiha Gökçen International airport (named after the first female combat pilot in the world, and first president of Turkey, Mustafa Attaturk’s adopted daughter). I met Birsen at her apartment in the Moda district of Kadikoy (on the Asian side of Istanbul) and was totally taken care of from that point onwards! First of all, her apartment was absolutely beautiful in its location four stories up and overlooking a park and the Sea of Marmara:
She knew I had been living at Tassajara for years and was traveling on a low budget, and she wanted me to enjoy her country and stay safe. To that end she got me a sim card for my phone so that I could call her if I ever needed to, she booked tickets for my travel to central Anatolia so that I could visit more of Turkey than just the city, she made me food and brought home all sorts of treats, like Turkish delights and a whole variety of Baklavas, and she even gave me her own bedroom to stay in while she took the smaller room of her apartment! But most wonderfully of all, she welcomed me into her network of family and friends and took me all over the place with her. She insisted that it was all a part of normal Turkish hospitality, but after getting to know her a little more I could tell that her generosity and good will came from an even deeper place.
As a young Turkish woman growing up in a traditional family in Istanbul she really broke out of the box. Spiritual seeker from the time she moved out on her own, she met a poet and teacher of meditation who introduced her to Buddhist practice and Zen in particular. She eventually started her own business in the city with her younger sister, but that did not deter her from traveling to assortment of world religion conferences and events in India, China, and other places, even being invited to several as a dignitary from Turkey. Indeed, she was the first Turkish person to attend the Sakyadita conference where we met in January.
Over the course of my time there I was on my own a lot during the day because Birsen had to work (being the head of her own company). At night we would sometimes go for dinners and outings with her sister Nursen and sometimes with Auntie Shardaman and Uncle Ali (who were staying in her mother’s apartment nearby while she was on vacation). It was always wonderful to see them as they were always so loving (despite the language barrier), and showed their love by feeding me delicious foods each time we met. And, on weekends (of which I had only two, regrettably) we would go on various trips into Kadikoy or across the Bosphorus to the European side of Istanbul, either just the two of us or with friends and/or relatives.
On our first Sunday afternoon Birsen arranged to have a meditation session and discussion with a few of her friends at her apartment. In the morning we went into Kadikoy for some shopping and returned with all kind of delicious Turkish sweets. When her friends arrived we all chatted for a bit before moving the furniture around and placing assorted cushions down to sit upon. After a forty minute period of zazen (all of them had sat before) we sat and talked in the living room before eventually going out onto the balcony for cake, tea, and the sumptuous pastries… During the time that I was communicating with Birsen over email before my arrival I had become aware of the riots and turmoil that had broken out in the city over discontent with the Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s government. The catalyst appeared to be over the government’s decision to tear down valued parks for the erection of barracks and commercial buildings, but Birsen told me that the fundamental reason for the protests were that the current government had become increasingly religiously conservative, seeming to set the country back from the original reforms put in place by the first president of the country, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. During that first wave of riots the police used teargas, water cannons, and even machetes to disperse the crowds. Four people were killed and 7,500 wounded. When I asked Birsen about the danger of coming to visit and asked about her and her family’s safety she assured me that things were fine where they were. And while I was there it appeared to be so, even though there were a few times when we could hear protesters marching and chanting in the nearby Yoğurtçu Park.
Over the course of the next few weeks Birsen and I would get to know each other better and better, sharing our stories and photos and lives with one another. I found her to be an amazing and inspiring woman, and will be forever grateful for our developing friendship as well as for the incredible hospitality that she offered to me. She absolutely made my trip to Turkey something to be treasured, and hopefully the next few posts will be the proof of that!