July 08, 2005

In Transit: London To Istanbul

Each year, I try to leave the U.S. to talk face to face with people in other parts of the world. Traveling helps me regain perspective on my own country, especially in times of turmoil. Two weeks ago, I left San Francisco for London where I spent a week before heading off to Istanbul.

Departing San Francisco was difficult. The San Francisco police and the DEA had raided several medical cannabis dispensaries and dispensary operators were in jail or wanted by authorities. I did not want to leave and yet I had family in London whom I longed to see.

Now comes news of the bombings in London and I wish I were back in the UK with my sister and her husband who are spooked by the destruction. The London of last week was a sunny, lush, relaxed series of walks, meals and visits with beloved, calm, worldly people. We strolled in the park and attended an art opening. There was a lovely overnight with friends at their country house reached by a series of buses and tube lines full of polite, chatty English commuters,

It was a relief to be in England because it felt less frightened and tense than the U.S. There were no evident armed guards at Heathrow and the teenagers on the tube returning from the LiveAid concert told us how peaceful and optimistic the crowds there were. The suffering in Africa could end they said. With intelligence and compassion anything was possible.

Among our English friends, there was also a keen desire to defend their own rights and not capitulate to American paranoia. When the Labor government initiated a push for national ID cards during that week, our English country companions lamented that the U.S. government had pressured their leaders into adopting this measure - which the London School of Economics and many others predicted would only further erode civil liberties and do nothing to improve actual security.

Peaceful, charming, level-headed London is now transformed by the bombings. One of the bombed tube lines was the train my brother-in-law took every morning to work. He was absent that morning to attend my nephew’s school graduation. Another bombed subway station was located a block from my sister’s office. She walked home that night. They were unharmed, but fifty people have died, hundreds are wounded. Moslem terrorists are blamed. People are frightened. I fear that the government’s push for greater surveillance of its citizens is around the corner.

It should be noted that none of the thousands of video surveillance cameras that tracked us through the London underground prevented the bombings. No ID cards or shutdown of the subways or cell phone networks or armed guards can prevent some person with a knapsack full of explosives from injuring others. The solution lies in greater understanding and respect between cultures, the ending of the war in Iraq and a refusal to accept cruelty and loss of freedom in the name of illusionary security.

When we reached Istanbul, we checked into a hotel across the street from the Hippodrome the park that has served as the cultural and political center of the city for the last 1,000 years. We exchanged shy smiles with the Moslem tourists and residents who came to see the same art and shop in the same markets. The women in their headscarves are so covered up - yet so openly curious about us and the world around them.

We went to the traditional baths and marveled that in this secular Moslem society, where we could be invited to eat cucumbers and tomatoes with the male bath attendants dressed in nothing but their towels and respectful hospitality. No, we explained to everyone who would listen, we did not vote for Bush, or the war. We are the other Americans. We are peaceful people.

In the evening we packed our headscarves and journeyed to the Blue Mosque, an exquisite 15th century building which radiated gravity, grace and serenity. After the 10:30 call to prayer was over and the worshippers had left, we went in to say our own prayers surrounded by Moslems and non-Moslems from around the world. We prayed for peace. We prayed for the end of fear.

Posted by ann at 09:44 AM | Comments (3)