I am just looking

by Simon Goland, September 24, 2011

Today’s Reflection is about Istanbul, and a lesson from a vendor at the Grand Bazaar.

Istanbul. A city of extremes, of East meets South meets West. An old veiled woman selling flowers on the street, waiting for clients, almost falling asleep occasionally, and talking on the cell phone. A young, stylishly-dressed man in a cafe, sipping a traditional Turkish tea, with an iPhone beside him, counting Muslim prayer beads while smoking a nargila. Heavy traffic of buses, taxis, and cars, with a vendor pushing a cart of goods to sell right in the middle of the lane.

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” – Martin Luther King

Istanbul. Vibrant, alive, noisy, hot, crowded, loud, beautiful and charming in its extremes, ancient and modern at once, Strangely, I feel very much at home here, wondering the streets and enjoying the many experiences this place has to offer.

One of the absolute “musts” while here is to explore the Grand Bazaar, a city in and out of itself. A maze of little alleys that are focused on selling anything and everything, beyond what one finds everywhere else in the city. This Bazaar is definitely Grand, and – as crowded, sparkling, and noisy as it is – it is enticing one to keep coming back again and again, entering from a different alley and being lost in the maze of endless stores of jewelry, leather, lamps, clothes, spices and sweets, modern and traditional musical instruments, and who knows what else.

One would think that in such a bazaar, the vendors try to cheat and scam the innocent tourists as much as possible. I have certainly had such experiences in other parts of the world, and in some way, was prepared to be on alert here too. We stopped at one store and bought a few beautiful silk scarves, as gifts to a few friends back home. Negotiation and a friendly conversation is always a part of the culture and the vendors expect one to participate, which we did. Eventually agreeing on the items and the price, we paid and left the store. Shortly afterwards, we saw the vendor running after us, telling us that we paid too much. Turns out we got confused with the currency, and instead of 50 Turkish Liras, gave him 50 Euros. The bills just looked similar to us, yet not to him. He returned the euros, explaining that it is not a good thing for him to keep money that was not earned in a clean and honest way.

You think that because you understand “one” that you must therefore understand “two” because one and one make two. But you forget that you must also understand “and.” – Sufi teaching story

The vendors in the bazaar are also very persistent in inviting one in to peruse their goods. They smile, talk, ask us where we are from, and explain in their many creative and often-fun ways why our life is going to be incomplete without something from their store. It is a form of a game, and for the most part, we enjoyed engaging in it as we passed through the many offers to buy rings, carpets, leather, and antique ceiling lamps, among other things.

On an occasion, though, such ongoing enticement gets tiring, and I used my usual Canadian “I am just looking” (when I don’t want to be “bothered”) in one of the stores I was merely passing by. The vendor simply replied, with a smile, “I am just selling.”

“Light is not morally superior to darkness.” – Gregg Levoy

This seemingly simple statement hit me quite strong, and stayed for a while. It invited me to examine my perspectives on selling and buying, on different ways of life, on power and privilege, on simplicity and humility, and on cross-cultural differences. Perception is indeed everything, and changing mine allows me to be a bit more open, hopefully-aware, and tolerant of others’ ways of life..

A sunny week to you all, inside and out.