Last year I received an invitation to attend a workshop in Istanbul, Turkey. It was a longtime dream to see Istanbul and I have a brother who lives there. But with a full-time job and six children, I wasn’t sure I would to be able to have my dream come true this time.
The invitation came last April from the European Bank to attend a gender and employment workshop that would be held at the end of that month in Istanbul. How could I go? The biggest obstacle was a project at my job training rural women. When I discussed the Istanbul trip with my husband and also my director at work, they both supported the trip. The workshop would be helpful to me in my job helping provide professional opportunities for Afghan women.
I counted the days until it was time to go. Then suddenly my sixteen-year-old became very sick with the measles. He had a high fever so we had to take him to the hospital in Kabul. This was not a great alternative because there are many infectious diseases at the hospital, but my husband stayed there with him. I was afraid he’d get sicker there than at home, so I convinced the doctors to let him come home. I thought I might have to cancel my trip but my husband did not want that. “It is so important for your skill development,” he said. As always, he supported me.
So I went. And, wow, what a beautiful city! I was supposed to be staying with my brother’s grandfather-in-law. At the airport I found a man holding a piece of paper with my name on it. I walked up to him and said, “Hello, I am Mariam from Afghanistan.” He replied in Turkish, but all I understood was my brother’s name, Sadat.
“Yes, yes,” I said, “I am his sister.” He asked another question but I could not understand what he said. Finally I just followed him to his car. He talked all the way, but I didn’t understand. I told him in English that I was sorry that I didn’t speak Turkish and asked him to speak in English, but then I realized he didn’t speak English. I asked myself—and God—what I should do. When we arrived at his house, he showed me the guest room. It was small but very beautiful with a small atrium in the hall.
After some attempts at conversation, we noted the language barrier between us with gestures. I realized that he was asking me about the workshop program so I showed him the paper. Suddenly he stood up and called Sadat, my brother. He gave me the phone and I heard my brother’s voice. I was so happy to talk to him! I told him the whole story. My brother laughed and told me not to worry, he would help. I drew a deep breath and offered thanks to God. From then on, every day the grandfather-in-law would first talk to my brother for instructions on what to do with me and then he took me to the conference or sightseeing.
After my workshop one day we went along the Bosphorus Strait between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara. I love the sea. Every day we ate fresh fish for lunch, hot from the cooking booths. We crossed the river and went on a boat trip and we visited one of the beautiful mosques with 21,000 blue ceramic tiles. We went to five mosques in Istanbul. We visited clothing bazaars, vegetable and fruit markets, flower and sweet shops, all of which were new to me. The kindly grandfather took me to see many famous and beautiful places in Istanbul: Topkapi Palace, Sultan Ahmed Mosque, Suleymaniye Camii, the grand bazaar, and other places. I had fun buying gifts for my family on these outings too.
We both had a wonderful time, even if we could not understand each other.
Photo of the Blue Mosque by Benh Lieu Song.