American Pilgrimage - One Man, One Bicycle, Many States, Many Faiths.

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The Shape of Faith to Come

by Brad J. Waggoner

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It Ends, Tragically

Jan 22, 04:10 AM

So, for the last few weeks, I’ve been biking from San Diego to Las Vegas, visiting Buddhist retreats, Kabbalah centers, Coptic Orthodox Monasteries, Evangelical men’s groups, and the like. I was excited to see some of the best parts of my trip, like Chimayo, New Mexico, where the Virgin Mary is rumored to appear, and northern Texas, with the largest cross in the Western Hemisphere, but I will not see them.

Everything has been stolen from me. While I was in the Mojave desert, someone in a light blue truck pulled up and loaded everything I owned while I was using the bathroom. They took everything – my bicycle, my computer, my grandmother’s prayer book, and all my notes. Worst of all, they left me in the middle of the desert 100 miles from any city, with no food, no transportation, nothing.

Through luck, I made it to Las Vegas, where a friend lent me the money to fly back to Baltimore. Poorer than Job’s turkey, I was crying on the plane, between a middle-aged white man who kept hugging me and an 80-year-old black woman who had seen Martin Luther King Jr. speak in 1963, and was coming to D.C. for the inauguration. “It’s Ok to cry,” she kept telling me. “It shows you’re asking for help. But you just got to have faith.” It was the last thing I wanted to hear.

What kind of person would steal everything someone owns in the desert, leaving that person in the middle of nothing?

I don’t have the energy to do anything right now.

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Comment [21]


Saying Goodbye to Istanbul

Dec 21, 03:30 AM

The conference is long over, the friends I’ve met have departed, and now it’s just me in Istanbul. I’ve packed my belongings and moved to a charming hostel in the old Sultanahmet area, tucked in an alley, just a five minute walk from the major mosques and museums.

I’ve been spending most of my days hanging out at the Metropolis Cafe, a charming, French-inspired restaurant with slightly overpriced food, but a great atmosphere and a wood-burning fireplace, which is cozy on the cold winter nights.

I’ve made friends with the waiters here, who ply me with tea so that they’ll have someone to talk to while they stand outside during the slow hours of the day, trying to flag down the very few tourist that come to Istanbul in December.

Mostly, I’ve been talking with Devrim, a garrulous boy with a crooked smile who boasts that people call him the “fanny magnet,” because he can get any girl he wants to. Australian, American, French, Turkish, he’s dated them all, and can tell you the intricacies of each nationality? The most beautiful are the Swedish. The English? “The smell. Like everything. Food, cigarettes, sweat, they just have every smell with them,” he cajoles.

But there’s a deeper side to him, of course. It seems like his obsession with girls comes, at least in part, from a heartache he experienced about a year ago. He met a Swedish girl and started a serious romance. She told him to come to Sweden, and he sold all of his possessions, said goodbye to his family in the Eastern part of Turkey, and was ready to move. But just before he boarded the plane, he called the girl who said, “Don’t come.”

He tells me this story like he tells no one, probably because I’m a stranger. Turkish men have a fair amount of machismo, and walking around with a broken heart can shatter that image. As he told me his story, he would get serious and sad, but if another waiter came by, he’d start laughing and smiling, even though no joke had been told. Since his heartbreak, he’s been working at this job in Istanbul, where he knows no one. He hasn’t talked to his family since the incident. They call, asking him to come see them, but he can’t. He feels he has to work until times are better, but doesn’t know what will make them better.

Here’s a picture of Devrim (on the right) and his fellow waiter Mehmet, posing after doing a dance to a Turkish hit to a girl named Jenny:

And here are some other random images from my trip.

Some men sleeping in their shop in the middle of the day:

A street in the old bazaar lined with lamps:

An young couple taking a break in a courtyard of Topkapi Palace:

And an ancient cemetery, shops built around it, with gorgeous, long headstones covered in detailed calligraphy:

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Comment [4]


The Largest and Most Grandiose Mosque in Turkey - I'm There

Dec 19, 05:38 AM

Today, I toured the Sultan Ahmet mosque, the most prestigious mosque in the Ottoman Empire, commonly known as the Blue Mosque for its blue-tiled interior.

Built in the early 17th century, during the reign of Ahmet I, the mosque is a mixture of Byzantine and traditional Islamic architecture, and was meant to compete with the Hagia Sophia for the most venerated mosque in the city. (Everyone I’ve met says the Hagia Sophia still wins hands-down.) The Blue Mosque is eternally circled by birds, which make a gorgeous site an night, when the light shines off of their underbellies:

I, of course, did not go at night. I actually went twice during the day. First, when I was told it would be open, which it wasn’t because of daily prayers. I did get this nice photo of some students washing their feet in preparation for prayers, though:

Then, after spending almost an hour in the rain, I got to enter the mosque. Unlike everything else in Istanbul, the Blue Mosque, being a religious structure, was free of charge. I really liked that. It was also a great place for the Turkish government to put a nice face on Islam.

Religion is regulated by the governmental Office of Religious Affairs, and the office was taking every opportunity to convert tourists to Islam, or at least make them think better of it. When you stop to take off your shoes at the entranceway, you are greeted with hundreds of pamphlets in every language, from “The Qur’an: The Final Revelation” to “The Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him)”. To quote the former:

“The Qur’an’s main message is to call people to turn to the Source of all being and the Giver of life and to serve Him with a pure heart, free of idolatry or superstition. It rejects the concept of salvation or special privilege based on ethnicity, race, or color. Spiritual salvation is to be achieved by an attempt to make amends for one’s sins and a sincere intention not to repeat one’s mistakes in the future. There is no official priesthood in Islam, and the ‘imam’ is simply a knowledgeable prayer-leader; one’s sins need only be confessed directly to the Creator.”

It’s a nice sentiment, but there are certainly a few jabs in there.

On the inside, the mosque is lined with more than 20,000 handmade tiles, and low-hanging chandeliers just like in the Hagia Sophia. I felt a little uncomfortable being there, as there was nowhere to go: all of the non-Muslim tourists were cramped behind a waist-high fence like sheep. It made me feel like I was in a zoo and the Muslims were there to be gawked at. There was even a kiosk set up by the government so you could learn more about Islam and the curious praying people you were watching. I didn’t stay long.

But I did take a photo:

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Comment [2]


Filling up on Turkish Culture

Dec 18, 06:15 AM

Today was a long day, but it’s going to be a short post. The ICFJ conference is officially over, but there was still one thing to do if people wanted to – a tour of Sabah, one of Istanbul’s largest newspapers. I tend to do whatever is offered to me (and I was hoping they might have a job for a young American who knows no Turkish), so I went.

I can’t say I saw anything incredibly different than any other newsroom I’d been in. There were desks, and computers, and a few offices. The most interesting thing I saw, however was this poster, done by a semi-famous Turkish artist, whose name I didn’t get:

The different squares are meant to signify different segments of the population that are politically active. They are:

1) Turkish nationalists
2) The Kurds
3) The Armenians
4) The Alevi, a religious subgroup
5) The rock ‘n’ rollers
6) The modern women
7) The communists
8) The gays
9) The Orthodox Christians
10) The missionaries (apparently there was a big story where some Christian missionaries were tortured by Islamic fundamentalists in the rural country)
11) The religious women
12) The transsexuals
13) The prostitutes
14) The crazy men (tore off an ear)
15) The unemployed (all in life jackets)
16) The women (I can’t tell if she’s huffing glue or hyperventilating)
17) This one, Frankenstein, is the no-Orhan Pamuk party, criticizing the people who rallied against the Nobel Prize-winning author because he discussed the Armenian genocide
18) The sleepers, i.e. everyone else

It’s not that different than America, is it? Different faces, same problems.

I spent the rest of the day with some lovely ladies from the Religion Newswriters Association, CNN, and the International Center for Journalists. We wandered around, ate street food, and I almost cried, pretending that we were running out of money to help one of them haggle to buy a carpet. I am incredibly good at haggling, and I love it. I can make up stories, look stressed, and spend hours with a seller. The lady I was helping didn’t know what to do with herself, as she couldn’t keep up the facade. But I got her carpet marked down from 1,800 lira to 900 lira in an hour and a half.

I still feel strange about the whole process, though, because it does involve an act. You can never be entirely truthful about what you can afford, because then you’ll pay too much. And, also, they expect you to bargain with them, and appreciate someone who’s good at it. Plus, it’s not like they’re being completely honest with you when they say they’ll go bankrupt if they sell it to you.

Still, I feel bad.

We ended the night watching the whirling dervishes, part of the Mevlevi Sufi order, a highly regarded spiritual group in Turkish history. The Mevlevis, a type of Sufi, gained prominence when they married into the Ottoman royalty in the late 14th century. Their spinning dance, which they are most famous for, is called a “sema,” and represents a mystical journey of man’s spiritual ascent through mind and love to perfection. Turning towards the truth, the follower grows through love, deserts his ego, finds the truth and arrives at the “Perfect.” He then returns from this spiritual journey as a man who has reached maturity and a greater perfection, so as to love and to be of service to the whole of creation.

Here is a photo:

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Comment [6]


Touring the Hagia Sophia with the Religion Journalists

Dec 17, 04:00 AM

Today, all of the journalists at the convention sponsored by the International Center for Journalists went on a tour of the Hagia Sophia, the pagan temple-turned church-turned mosque-turned museum that sits atop the city.

It seemed like a rushed tour, as it only lasted a half an hour, and the guide left little time for exploration – I saw tourists in many areas that we never went to, that I wish I could have seen, but I don’t know that it’s worth paying the entrance fee to get into the Hagia Sophia again.

Anyhow, here’s a picture of some of our group, looking somewhat intent on what the tour guide was saying, as he was hard to understand over the hubbub of traffic and construction:

The Hagia Sophia, or “Saint Wisdom” is rumored to have been built on the site of an ancient pagan temple, although no one knows if that’s true. It’s also said the some of the pillars within the temple come from the Temple of Diana, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. No one can be sure if that’s true, either.

The Hagia Sophia has been built and destroyed many times, the original having been built by Romans in 360, but the current one dating back to 537. It’s a stunning monument, built completely without mortar. From the outside, it looked huge, but I am familiar with the cathedrals of Western Europe, and expected the inside to be divided into many smaller rooms. Not so. It was cavernous and huge, so big that I was unable to get an all-encompassing photo. (The enormous amount of rigging for restoration purposes didn’t help, either.)

It was originally meant to be a church, filled with incredibly expensive icons built of the finest materials. These are gone, of course, smashed by Christians in an ancient anti-icon movement. But some of the frescoes are still standing, as with this mural of Jesus that greets you as you enter. The shimmering of the surface is incomparable, as tiny sheets of gold are layered inside the tiles in a painstaking process that has yet to be replicated:

But, of course, in 1453, the Turks conquered Constantinople, and the Hagia Sophia became a mosque. In the next hundred years, minarets were added to the building, and all of the frescoes were covered with plaster. In the long run, this might have been a good thing, as they would not be in nearly as good condition as they are now if the plaster hadn’t protected them from moisture.

Here is a picture of me with my friend Natasha Tynes from the ICFJ, in front of large alabaster ablution fountains. Carved from a single piece of alabaster, they held the water for Muslims to wash before prayers. (We probably shouldn’t have stood exactly in front of them.)

This is my favorite photo, of the low-hanging chandeliers. Because this was built when candles were in use, they had to hang hundreds of feet from the ceiling in order to get enough light for the huge space:

And lastly, here is a picture of the outside in its present state. Since 1935, after the establishment of the Turkish Republic and its secular state, the site has been a museum.

And, of course, here is a picture of the happy ICFJ group. I’m hidden in the back, somewhere.

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