Okay, I admit it. I’m a bad table neighbor in a restaurant. I don’t dribble my food or make offensive intestinal noises, but I often find myself listening in on others’ conversations.
During a recent eavesdropping session, I overheard a conversation about Muslims and how most of them are terrorists. I was a little surprised to hear such blatantly ignorant remarks. The restaurant patrons came across like school kids on the playground saying, “my god can beat up your god.”
Regardless of your chosen deity, life definitely changed after 9-11. Terror alerts and stories of atrocities in London, Madrid, Casablanca and Beirut capture the headlines. However, I still believe the vast majority of people are decent human beings and, as I listened to my less-than-educated dinner neighbors, I couldn’t help but think of how a family of supposed terrorists touched my life.
Three weeks after 9-11, my wife and I took a previously planned trip to Istanbul for a little R&R. As expected, airport security was extremely tight and we didn’t see many Americans traveling. What wasn’t expected was the overwhelming outpouring of sympathy, concern and camaraderie the Turkish people showed us. Despite religious differences, countless strangers approached us and told us how sorry they were for what happened to our country.
We stayed in the Sultanahmet district of Istanbul. This is the old part of the city, packed with ornate mosques, historic churches and bustling bazaars. On the eastern side of Sultanahmet we found a quaint street, filled with restaurants and cafés. Every night after sightseeing, we would stop into our favorite street café for a beer and hookah (in case you’re wondering, the hookah contained no illicit substances). Each evening we saw a man leaning out the window of his ground floor apartment, watching the people on the street. He became a familiar sight. On our last night in town, we stopped in for a drink and the man who was usually leaning out of his window had stepped outside onto the sidewalk. We asked our waiter to invite the gentleman to join us at our table and we were thrilled when he accepted.
Communication was difficult since our new friend spoke no English and we spoke no Turkish. This didn’t stop us. Through sketching on a notepad and gesturing, we learned that he was married and had two sons. During our quasi-diplomatic summit, we noticed that his wife, dressed in conservative Muslim attire, had stepped outside and appeared to be curious about us. She called her husband and our waiter over to her and they spoke briefly before the waiter came back to our table and told us that she had invited us into her home for tea.
We were honored to accept the invitation. We traded our shoes for slippers and went inside her humble home. As we sat in their living room looking at photographs, the lady of the house stepped into the kitchen to prepare tea and cookies.
We were enjoying their hospitality, despite the awkwardness of our language barrier, when their 21-year-old son came through the door. This was very nice, as he spoke some English.
Our friends seemed eager to tell us something. They spoke with their son cum translator. He turned to us, raised his tea glass and said in a thick Turkish accent, “Our country is very sorry for what happened to America. How you say… Turkey and America is brothers. Is good, no?”
We happily raised our glasses to this toast, but our hosts seemed to have more to add.
They had another conversation with their son. He raised his glass again and said, “We also want to say, how you say… Bin Laden, f— you!”
We raised our glasses and repeated this toast just in time to bid our new friends farewell and take a taxi to the airport.