In 2015 I took a trip to one of my favorite countries, Turkey. I packed the ultimate travel camera, the Fujifilm X-T1. Enjoy some one the images I took and read a story on one of my many powerful encounters.
If you’re reading this and you happen to find yourself on the Sultan Ahmet walkway, headed east towards the Sea of Marmara, and you just so happen to be wearing leather shoes of some sort, stop.
Stop right where you are, do a complete 360 degree scan of your surroundings, and find this man. His name is Mahmut. I am sure he is there.
Turkey, particularly Istanbul, is filled with wonderful humans. Humans who work hard, play hard, love well, and in general seem to enjoy more areas of life than I even knew existed. While meandering through the Grand Bazaar, you will be, without a doubt, bombarded by happy, intelligent, and charismatic individuals who would love to help you lighten your wallet. I am convinced the Turks are some of the best salesmen around. My father is Turkish–and no joke–he literally sold ice to an Eskimo. However, that’s a different story altogether.
I have been blessed to visit many countries, yet there is this warm friendliness that seems unique to the people of Istanbul, Turkey.
I am standing there, in front of the Blue Mosque; you know, doing the tourist thing. Taking pictures, maybe a selfie or two (don’t judge), when, out of the corner of my eye, I see a man. He’s standing about fifteen feet from where I am, staring me down.
He stands out to me, especially in contrast to the mass amount of beautifully tailored Europeans. He’s wearing moderately tattered clothing. With arms folded and resting on his belly, he has a peculiar look about him. Immediately, I am struck with curiosity.
So there I stand, framing the shot, when out of the corner of my eye, I see him take motion.
Thoughts pop into my mind as I see his first few steps conclude.
“He’s walking towards me. He’s going to ask me for some cash. I don’t have any cash.”
He is now about six feet from me and stops. His arms are still folded and still resting on his belly. The expression on his face has not changed. As soon as I remove the viewfinder from my gaze, I hear the words “Abi come come, gel.”
I am not nervous. I think I just rather wanted to be left alone, yet interestingly enough, I begin walking towards him. He turns and starts walking away from me. Making a nonchalant wave, he lifts his hand into the air, flicking his wrist, and encourages me to follow. A little reluctant to be led by this man into “wherever,” I lag back a bit. He doesn’t get far before he sits down on a small wooden box.
He is staring at me as I approach him and when I got close enough, he points at my foot and slaps his thigh, just above the knee. As I stare blankly at him, not understanding what he wants, the motion is repeated, this time with a few more slaps.
“He wants me to put my foot on his leg?”
As soon as my sole landed on his leg, he grabbed my ankle. Yanking a brush from his jacket pocket, he began to feverishly scrub my shoe, cleaning it from the Ottoman dust that so settles on literally everything in Istanbul. I promise he made that shoe better then before I bought it. Next comes a metal tin from the same pocket. He removes some of a mucilaginous-looking, white substance from the can and begins rubbing it into my shoe. Violently shifting his body, he jerks to his left, grabs the corner of his jacket, and begins polishing my sneakers with the jacket’s interior lining. After about a minute of shining, he plants a single kiss on two of his fingers and then points to the sky. This is followed by the throwing-down of my foot, the pointing at my other foot, and the slapping of his knee. I know the drill and the process repeats.
Once all is done, he begins to show me pictures in his wallet of all his children. Being quite the dynamic group of kids, one could have concluded they were prints from a google image search, but I never let my thoughts get the best of me. He proceeds to tell me that his shoe shine comes with a three year warranty, and that I should reward him. I was thinking he would want money, what came next was rather surprising. He asks me to take a picture of him.
I have no idea why he wants an image of himself on my camera, however I knew it would be rude to deny. After I took the picture, I gave my cellphone to a bystander and had her take one of Mahmut and I together. I showed him the image on my camera and he smiled and nodded. He seemed proud. Curious and not wanting to leave, I asked him about himself, where he lived, what his children are like. He told me he travels over 3 hours a day to come to Istanbul (of course this could mean he lives right down the street, traffic in Turkey has become a nightmare). He travels to Istanbul to shine shoes, because the tourists pay far more than the locals of his city.
I wanted to give my new abi (brother) some cash, but had spent all my lira at the Grand Bazaar just a few minutes prior. Later that evening, I decided I absolutely needed to give him some money. I hoped desperately he was still where I originally found him. When I got to my room, I took some cash from my reserve and made my way back.
Walking back was exciting. I am not sure why, but I just felt great. As I approached the area where he was, Mahmut made eye contact with me. He lit up with a huge smile, jumped up from his wooden box, and greeted me with a hug. I gave him the Turkish Lira, and thanked him. A small tear welled up in his eye. He stood proud and called me “Abi” once more, gave me a rather awkward second hug, shook my hand, and thanked me over and over again.
I thoroughly enjoyed my trip to Turkey. It was filled with family visits, decadent food, loads of laughs, and ridiculously awesome shopping. Yet, for some reason, I believe this memory will never fade from me.
So, if you’re reading this, and you happen to find yourself on the Sultan Ahmet walkway, headed east towards the Sea of Marmara, and you happen to be wearing leather shoes of some sort, stop. Stop right where you are, do a complete 360 scan of your surroundings and find this man. His name is Mahmut. I am sure he is there. He is the kindest person you will meet on your journey in Turkey.