East Meets West

Separated by decades and thousands of miles, a family reunites in Istanbul.

A collage of pictures from a trip to Istanbul

“Who wants me to read their fortune?!” I ask, clapping my hands together with enough excitement that the question is really more of an exclamation. 

Vaghan meetooni?” — “Can you really?” asks my cousin, who is two years younger than me, in her native Farsi. 

It’s a gray morning in Istanbul, and we’re gathered in a cozy café for a traditional Turkish breakfast. Our table is littered with tulip-shaped glasses of hot black tea and small white espresso cups featuring the dregs — left behind by design — of our Turkish coffee.

The caffeine is a testament to our combined jet lag. My mom, my boyfriend, and I have traveled nearly 24 hours from the United States; my cousin and her parents joined us from Tehran, three hours away. 

I’m meeting my cousin and aunt for the first time; my mom is seeing her brother for the first time in 10 years and her sister-in-law for the first time in 37. My family has been separated by more than 6,000 miles for longer than I’ve been alive. 

Albateh! Of course I can!” I reply with a wink. I pull my own cup and saucer close to show how it’s done. 

I place the saucer on top of the cup and flip the set toward me, so the saucer is flat on the table and the cup sits upside down. The grounds shift and drip, forming shapes inside the cup, which are read like clouds or dreams.

“My amme taught me,” I explain, referring to my dad’s older sister, who showed me the basics of tasseography, the art of interpreting symbols in coffee grounds and tea leaves. “She told me that if the cup makes a popping sound when you pull it from the saucer, it means you’re getting a kiss.”

“I’m down,” says my boyfriend, drawing laughs from the group. He sets himself up and flips the cup mistakenly away from him. “Did I mess it up? Can’t you read yours?” 

I return my attention to my own cup and pull it from the saucer. No pop, which gets more laughs. I look at my family and back into the cup. 

“I can’t read my own,” I say, setting it down. “Isn’t it bad luck?” 

My mom — who, despite a hard life that included a violent revolution in her home country, doesn’t believe in bad luck — grabs for the cup. “Clear skies!” she asserts, her go-to fortune in every scenario. 

Where she sees clear skies, though, I see dark clouds. Our family has long been split up — half in Iran, half almost everywhere else on the planet. For as much hope as she has that it will get better, it’s hard not to see the reality: We are sitting here in this café because we are not welcome in one another’s countries.

But there’s a silver lining in this coffee-ground-colored cloud: At least we have Istanbul. 

At a Crossroads

The Republic of Turkey is often cited as a major intersection of the world. It’s a bridge between East and West where Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and secularity coincide — and sometimes collide. Its history is rich and diverse, a combination of many ancient cultures and traditions.

Located in the northwest, along the Sea of Marmara, Istanbul is famous for its bustling bazaars and magnificent palaces and is celebrated as a fabled crossroads where Europe meets Asia. 

On the eastern shore of the Bosporus Strait lies the Asian side of the city, where neighborhoods are quiet and less touristy. On the western shore, the European side of the city is known as Sultanahmet (old Istanbul). 

The district is filled with historic sites, such as the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, and the Basilica Cistern. Cobblestone streets feel primed to help visitors explore not only passageways of earth but also passageways of time. 

The Hagia Sophia, for example, was completed in 537 as a Greek Orthodox cathedral. Its famous dome epitomizes Byzantine architecture; it was the world’s largest cathedral for nearly 1,000 years and changed the history of art and building design. 

In 1453, it became an Ottoman mosque, and four glorious minarets were added to the city’s western skyline. In 1935, as Turkey secularized, so did the house of worship. 

Now nearly 1,500 years old, it still stands as a museum — and happens also to be the home of Gli, a beautiful tabby that serves as a guard cat. “My land is Hagia Sophia,” reads Gli’s Instagram profile. “I’m a celebrity cat.” 

With more than 21,000 followers, @hagiasophiacat is a glutton for attention, and she makes herself available to visitors who want to fawn over her under the famed dome, which, the 15th-century Ottoman historian Tursun Beg once wrote, “vies in rank with the nine spheres of heaven!”

Home Away From Home

For all that Istanbul offers, it doesn’t automatically make sense as a family-reunion spot. 

My parents grew up primarily in Tehran and, like many of their generation, studied and worked in Europe before returning home to raise a family. After the 1978–’79 Islamic Revolution, my family members joined a diaspora strewn across the globe. 

Those who left settled in Europe, Australia, Southeast Asia, the United States, and Canada. Just as many stayed behind. 

I first visited Istanbul in 2009. My father’s older brother, who had remained in Tehran after the revolution, was in declining health and my dad wanted to see him again. We spent a week together that March, with the ancient city as our backdrop. 

We walked every day beside ruins and along turquoise harbors. We enjoyed baklava in open-air teahouses lit with colorful lanterns, sampled kebaps in restaurants draped in rich fabrics. We watched Istanbullus play backgammon in parks that were filled with stray dogs and exercise equipment. We chatted with fishermen who cast their lines off bridges into the Bosporus, and we vowed to take home every stray cat we came across. (The community loves and nurtures stray animals.) 

It was the last time we saw my uncle; he passed away several years later. It’s hard to write about our brief time together without tearing up, without feeling regret — or, if not regret, then at least a sense of melancholy — that it was the first time in decades and the last time in this lifetime that we were able to be together. 

An Uncertain Future

Time is a funny thing. When you don’t see a person, or a place, for many years, it’s easy to imagine that no time has passed. But time does pass, and with that passing comes loss. Sometimes, as it did for my mom, loss can spur you to action.

In early 2019 she unexpectedly lost her youngest brother, whom she hadn’t seen since leaving Iran in 1981, despite dreaming for years that someday the world would change and they wouldn’t be restricted in coming and going. After his death, my mom and her remaining brother became determined to see each other. They wanted to make the most of the time they have, without relying on politicians to set egos aside and figure things out. 

In January 2020, amid heightened tensions between the United States and Iran, we once again set off for Istanbul. 

I felt an initial shock of meeting people who were essentially strangers, but whom I inexplicably loved. Tech­nology like FaceTime links my mom to her brother for weekly chats, and Instagram gave me and my cousin a connection and context. (My boyfriend, trooper that he is, came in blind; he was meeting everyone for the first time; he spoke only English, while my relatives spoke mostly Farsi.)

That shock wore off quickly, though, and the six of us — spanning cultures as well as ages, from 31 to 73 — set off on daily adventures through the Sultanahmet, Eminönü, Karaköy, Beyo˘glu, Be¸sikta¸s, and Üsküdar neighborhoods. 

We visited Kiz Kulesi (Maiden’s Tower) and the Galata Mevlevihanesi (whirling dervish hall). We haggled for saffron in the spice market and got lost amid the stalls of the Grand Bazaar.

We began every morning with a café breakfast (and my attempts at fortune-telling). Each night after dinner, we walked near the Galata Tower along bustling Istiklal Avenue. We looked in shop windows, over whose doors hung nazar amulets, the blue “evil eye” decorations believed to have protective qualities.

We listened to street musicians singing in Turkish, Persian, and Arabic. We sipped freshly squeezed pomegranate juice and slipped through covered passages that seemed to hide secrets of an Istanbul we’d never really know as tourists. 

As we walked, ate, and laughed, we got to know one another, with me acting as translator. With each passing day, we talked more and more of the “next time” we’d see each other. My aunt kept asking me to relay to my boyfriend all the sights we’d see and foods we’d eat when we could visit Iran. 

“But not now,” she’d insist. “Not yet. Don’t worry. It will get better. You’ll see.” 

As much as we may have wanted to forget everything that keeps us apart, it was hard to ignore reality as notifications lit up our phones: Ongoing protests in Iran decrying the regime and the aftermath of the U.S. assassination of a top Iranian official evoked fears of World War III. Rumblings of the spread of a novel coronavirus began seeping into mainstream media. 

Right in front of us, on the streets of Istanbul, homeless women and children sat begging, crying, working, singing — above all, hoping. My mom stopped to talk to as many as she could; she discerned that they were Syrian refugees, and that animosity for them in Turkey was growing. 

As much as Istanbul felt like a temporary haven for us, it was not safe and welcoming for everyone. 

Nowhere is.

is an Experience Life senior editor.

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