Seven days in Istanbul

Plastic surgery, stray dogs and tourist traps mark a city of constant redefinition

Istanbul’s stray dog population is subsidized by the government and citizens opposed to euthanization.

Istanbul’s stray dog population is subsidized by the government and citizens opposed to euthanization.

Photos by Raheem F. Hosseini

By the looks of things, a terrible disaster has befallen the Modus Hotel in Turkey, a five-story structure jutting awkwardly from a sharply tilted street. Medical bandages adorn the heads and faces of roughly a quarter of the denizens, some stained a light brown and coming loose around jagged surgical scars. Women with bandaged noses and puffy eyes. Men with gauze swaddling their bald skulls, pinpricked a bright red as if from chemical burns.

Gawking sneakily in the first-floor dining nook, our travel party wonders which of the many conflicts pressing these borders is to blame. The horrific civil war in Syria? The reignited battle for control in Iraq? Thudding air strikes in Yemen? The Rohingyan migrant crisis? Some other foreign travesty?

None of the above, it turns out.

No, these walking wounded are casualties of a less dire conflict—the battle to look good. A cosmetic surgery center a few blocks away has made the hotel a choice locale for outpatient recovery. Travelers of means fly in, hack and slash what they don’t like, and first-class it home.

Welcome to Istanbul, a city for the remaking.

Called Byzantium by Greek colonists, Constantinople under the Roman Empire and given its current name when the conquering Ottomans arrived, 14.2 million people stuff themselves into this transcontinental metropolis, which grazes two continents and borders two seas at the northwestern reaches of the country. Appropriately, the torch-shaped city feels very much like the thrumming center of the world. It shouldn’t work, mixing this many disparate ingredients—high fashion and modest dress, palaces and shopping malls of equal opulence, ancient sites amid constant development—yet somehow it does.

Along with my father and brother, I’m here for seven days to explore the sights and meet some relatives for the first time. Cosmetic surgery isn’t on the menu, but that doesn’t mean Istanbul won’t leave its mark.

I must get to the bottom of Istanbul's stray-animals epidemic.

Everywhere we walk, wild dogs and (some) cats litter the warm pavement, passed the hell out. On the way to Taksim Square, a dozen animals snooze in a small field, making it look like an unfinished pet cemetery. Outside of Topkapi Palace, two dogs slumber nose to rear. One has a red device implanted in its ear. During a visit to a nearby island, more sleepy carcasses, although there is one go-getter that runs beside our horse-drawn coach like it’s on security detail.

At night, you can hear their vampire howls.

I’m baffled and obsessed, taking more photos of unconscious animals than I do of the city itself. Is this by policy or freak occurrence? It’s not until I return stateside that I learn the answer. Apparently, Istanbul residents are so opposed to euthanizing stray animals that the local government has rolled out a campaign, outfitting the city with vending machines that dispense dog food whenever people deposit their recycled cans and bottles. These dispensers feed the city’s approximately 150,000 roaming dogs (though I also spotted little water and food dishes used by stray cats).

Meanwhile, to cut down on rabies and humanely curtail population growth, local shelters trap, spay and vaccinate stray hounds, then release them back into their neighborhoods with little red markers implanted in their ears.

It’s an elegant approach, one that’s received interest from more than 60 other countries, according to an interview last year in Der Spiegel with the vending invention’s creator.

But it also calls into contrast the city’s neglect of its equally legion—and visible—poor. Like the Syrian refugee who futilely presented his ID to passersby as a family of three trailed or the child beggars who pawed at our shirtsleeves, the visceral misfortune here stands out all the more because of the locale and its proximity to glimmering mosques and palaces. Or maybe it takes being a tourist to notice the human suffering that exists everywhere.

After all, I couldn’t say whether Istanbul’s homeless population is greater than in major American cities or simply more exposed. There seems to be one universal truth wherever you go: After a while, you stop noticing.

Here, we are among ancient things repurposed as tourist trappings.

An expansive square flecked with cafes and merchants bridges three of the city’s most alluring historical attractions—the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and our first destination, Topkapi Palace.

There’s a lot to absorb, but I keep leering at the people with the selfie sticks. It’s the first time I’ve seen one of these contraptions in real life, and there are throngs of them. A middle-aged Japanese tourist has hers attached to a belt and seems consumed by her own image—an ouroboros in a sun hat and fanny pack.

Once past an enormous stone awning, snub-faced guards with machine guns stand like chess pawns near sacred relics—parchment scrolls loosely translated, snaggle-toothed keys the size of daggers and enough pointy weapons to arm a Game of Thrones LARPing club. These are ostensibly the swords of the Prophet Muhammad and his men, and the prophet claims the choicest steel of the bunch. His son Ali gets a big, rusty pig sticker that looks like it would be a beast to lift. Then again, a glass case displaying Ali’s wardrobe—a gigantic sackcloth Henley—makes it appear he was a beast of a man.

So does a golden cast of the prophet’s foot. It’s wide and long and seems to belong to someone pushing 8 feet in height. I nudge my dad. “Look,” I crack, “Muhammad had six toes.”

After taking in the sights of the first location, we stop at an outdoor cafe and request beer. The server gives us a look that says, “Only tourists would request booze this close to a holy site.” He’s obviously not Catholic. We order Turkish coffee instead, a sludgy brew served in doll cups that sends a lightning bolt to the brain. It’s like the time I tried cocaine, except more palatable.

Our aunt Mahin shows us an old Turkish tradition by reading our fortunes in the streaks of the upturned cups. In mine, she glimpses the gaunt body of a goat, which bodes well for this Capricorn, she says.

As our group exits the cafe toward the line for the Blue Mosque, a sudden downpour batters us. Not being dressed for the schizophrenic weather, my brother and I race for cover, to our father’s chagrin. He and the rest of the family soldier on, but return a short time later with quizzical grins. They say the mosque was beautiful, but all those soggy tourists removing their footwear made the place reek of feet. The Year of the Goat is already paying dividends.

The rain has mostly lifted by the time we’re escorted to a street-side table in front of the Baran Restaurant Ottoman Kitchen, a couple of blocks from the historical sites. The host, a proud Kurd, asks me where I’m from. When I say “California,” he mistakes my geographic specificity for Bush-era nerves. “You are American,” he corrects. “Don’t be afraid.” He claims that reporters from The Washington Post’s local bureau are among his best customers. I wouldn’t doubt it.

We order food; the dish I get is like a shepherd’s pie encased in a fried and doughy potato crust. Inside is a steamy mélange of skewered lamb, green peppers, peas, carrots and a tangy sauce. It cooks my innards, and I chase it down with a chilled can of Turkey’s house beer, Efes.

After, as we walk to the tram that brought us here, the call to afternoon prayer begins. An old, enfeebled voice dins the air. It’s unpleasant at first, but then the pain enters me. It’s forlorn, genderless, beautiful.

On cue, thick pearls descend from the violet mantle above. Raindrops shotgun our shoulders as we run with desperate glee and a trio of schoolgirls sweeps us into the crowded train car with a storm of giggles.