BOOK EXCERPT: days in a conservative neighborhood in Istanbul

Restraint and Indulgence

The book I am writing is coming along. I’m on page 173. Here’s an excerpt shorn from a trip to Turkey in 2003. Enjoy it and give me feedback in the comments section, please. : )


I actually snapped a shot of the women shopping, but felt badly later for perhaps making them feel exploited (one woman turned her head as I was covertly taking the picture). The last thing I wanted to do was to make the covered women feel objectified, as they already are in their culture, and often around the world – faceless, placeless, shadows and representations of the oppressive ways of Islam. That’s part of the deep, and evil, irony too. Women in Islam are often forced to cover themselves for the sake of “decency” and family honor so that they don’t cause men to lust after them, but this kind of “de-sexualization” often just makes the culture even more hyper-sexualized. It’s like if you had a zebra in your city and it was a really rare, priceless zebra and in order to keep people from staring at it or thinking about it, you build a strange cage around it, and then another, and then another, until your city was actually oriented around this enclosure to “protect” the zebra from onlookers. Pretty soon everyone is thinking about the zebra, imagining the zebra, trying to sneakily get a glimpse of the zebra, and “zebra” becomes the most googled word in the whole city. Everyone has ZEBRA on their minds. Making something “illegal” or “unseeable” never addresses the real issues, the heart issues.

This is part of what makes the gospel so REVOLUTIONARY – particularly in the Muslim World. The gospel is a law of grace.

“For sin shall not be your master,

because you are not under law,

but under grace.”

Romans 6:14

It’s a law of empowering people. It’s not about avoiding the wrong choice, but wanting the RIGHT ONE. It’s not about training people not to steal their neighbors potted plants; it’s about transforming the mind so there is no drive to steal potted plants. It’s about being so full of heaven, so full of LOVE, so full of the freedom Jesus purchased, that cheap thrills have no allure.

One day after carving a gentle stream of life through the masses in Fatih for a couple hours in 98 degrees Fahrenheit air, while wearing long sleeves and an ankle-length skirt, I was weary. I was sweaty. I walked to a park and plunked down on a bench. I said, “God, if you want me to talk to some people, just bring them to me.” Immediately, two women seated across the park from me rose and glided over, plopping down on my bench. “Hi. Do you want a snack?” the woman closest to me asked in accented, but smooth English. I was amazed! “Sure,” I replied, stretching my hand into the bag of chip-like snacks. She was wearing all black, but a headscarf, not a charshaf. And she spoke English! This was astounding! While a fair amount of young women in Istanbul spoke Basic English, it appeared that even the male shopkeepers in Fatih knew nothing beyond, “Hello.”

Her name was Doğannur. She was eighteen and she taught English and the Q’uran to young kids. And she was lovely. Her spirit was doe-eyed. And her eyes were heart-filled. We talked for about 30 minutes, until I had to catch the bus, and made plans to meet later in the week so she could show me around Fatih! Answered Prayer! My own friend and tour guide and IN – INto the culture, the shops, the mosque gardens. It was incredible. I won the lottery! And what spiritual mansions I would invest in with the winnings! Houses in heaven for people from Fatih!

Over the days I spent with Doğannur I learned a lot about Turkey, Muslim culture, and the dynamics of life as a Conservative Muslim woman. One day she took me to the lush gardens of the largest mosque in the neighborhood. The grounds of a neighborhood mosque are often community gathering places in the Muslim world – especially for women and children who typically lack public places to gather socially (restaurants, cafes, etc are usually men-exclusive). As we went to the gated gardens, I observed a certain irony – these women were literally hidden behind the mosque. From the mosque there was no indication of a garden, much less a garden speckled in over a hundred people! It was clandestine. Behind the mosque woman chattered in small groups, families picnicked on blankets, children ran and played. It was a very private public place.

And it was gorgeous. This particular garden overlooked the Bosphorous Strait and therefore a large chunk of the city of Istanbul. It was amazing. As we sat down on a low wall facing the water, I was in awe. I would not have found that place on my own. And it was one of the most beautiful, unique places in all of Istanbul. And there I was, probably the only non-Muslim in the place, but nonetheless on the inside track of the Muslim worldview – garnering wisdom and insight. God got me there.  He got me into the inner courts of the Muslim community in Fatih and His Presence was wafting off of me.

As we sat there, in awe of the view, we chatted about life and the world. I loved talking to Doğannur. Her curiosity was intoxicating. Her openness was exhilarating. Her sensitive heart was inspiring. She reminded me of the little kids that approached Jesus: eyes full of wonder, hearts full of expectation – secretly knowing that He would accept them more than anyone else on earth. At one point, she grew silent, her black sky eyes dull, but then beginning to glimmer with the stars of a bold question: “Um, I need to ask you a question,” she said, not making eye contact and somewhat nervously folding her hands. She looked afraid of my answer. “Okay, go ahead,” I responded. “Do you believe Jesus is God?” Her body braced itself. I looked at her, night eyes waiting, “Yes, Doğannur. I do believe Jesus is God.” “Oh!” she cried out, as if hit in the gut, “But we don’t believe that! That’s shirk, the worst kind of sin!” “I know. I know what the Q’uran says about not giving God an equal,” and then I went on to explain the three-in-one reality of God and that Jesus is the Son of God. She was perplexed, but also very very attentive. I could tell she was suspicious that my words held truth. I could tell that her quiet listening and careful processing was a real moment of wrangling for her. She was looking an intense possibility in the face: Islam could be wrong. The premise of her culture could be erroneous. Love could be fully revealed in Jesus. And Jesus could be both God’s Son and God.

A part of my heart panged to see the tension in her. I longed with compassion for her to break through from Islam to a red hot romance with Jesus that would beyond doubt set her AND HER PEOPLE free!!!!!

Another part of my heart gave God a standing ovation for getting me into that garden and into that conversation.

The biggest part of my heart shouted, “Doğannur is about to become a Jesus-lover!!!!”

That moment, perched in Istanbul – one of the most historic and picturesque cities representing the bridge between east and west – will always be one of the most lynchpin moments of my life. The simple desire to walk and pray through a neighborhood led to a heart-to-heart with a woman perfectly positioned to set her people ablaze!!!!

After I returned to America, Doğannur and I wrote back and forth for about a year, but then mysteriously my letter came back with some kind of official “wrong address” note scrawled on it. And the email address she gave me didn’t work either.

One day I hope I will see her again – somehow, somewhere. She will be all smiles and in her own way she will say, “I know the Truth and the Truth set me free!” And I will jump and scream and hug her. And my heart will explode with the hope and fulfillment of heaven. We’ll sit and drink tea and she’ll gush about all Jesus has done in and through her life. She’ll tell me stories of whole households of Muslims following Jesus and I will weep for joy. She will tell me about the day her mom, dad, and siblings confessed belief in Jesus. My eyes will grow so wide in joy, my brain will be swallowed and all I will feel or say is praise to God! My voice will jump outside of time and join the multitude in heaven shouting, “Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns!” (Revelation 19:6)