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Serendipity in Istanbul

By Robbieana

            Standing inside a carpet and tile store in Turkey, I held a black calligraphy pen steadily in my hand as I drew four bold strokes, beginning the Chinese character ai. A Turkish employee watched with interest as the random strokes began to unite, transforming into the final product: a complex character that simply meant “love”. The calligrapher’s excitement was apparent on his face, expressed through a mesmerized gaze, wide smile and breathless “ooh”. My mouth echoed his smile upon seeing how eager he was to learn more. I could not help but to think how lucky I was to have the privilege of meeting such a talented artist, who wanted to learn more about my culture. There was no other explanation for this special experience than serendipity leading me there.

Five minutes earlier, Inga and I had walked by the store on our way to the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and Cistern. A Turkish man smoking by the entrance immediately began the typical conversation starter we had heard all day, “Konichiwa. Anyong Hasayo. Where are you from?” Intrigued that we were Chinese, yet spoke “perfect English”, he said, “Please come in, have some apple tea and meet my friend. He is very interested in China.” Despite being in a rush, Inga and I eventually gave into his pleas and met his friend, a calligrapher. The artist sat behind a desk which proudly displayed plates and tiles that were elaborately decorated with famous Turkish buildings and beautiful Arabic characters. The Turkish calligrapher extended his hand in a friendly handshake before telling us about his interest in beautifully entrancing Chinese characters. He was excited that we could speak English, unlike other Chinese tourists he had met, because it was our intermediary language for communication.

Responding to several of his questions, I explained to the calligrapher that each Chinese character is a one syllable word, albeit sometimes two words are combined to form a single “compound word” with an entirely new meaning. To illustrate my point, I wrote the word, ni hao. Ni means “you” and hao means “good”, so together they mean how do you do. Next, I wrote ai, and urged him to try writing it. Picking up the pen with a childlike fascination in his eyes, he duplicated ai. Looking back intermittently and forth between his trial and the original, he carefully composed a character that looked a somewhat recognizable as ai. “Very different than Arabic. This is how you would write it in Arabic,” he suddenly said as he began to rewrite ai, with his own spin.

Each pen stroke in the character grew longer, and the ends flipped delicately, swiftly taking on an appearance of English cursive. The final product looked neither Chinese nor Arabic, but instead a fusion of both languages. It was my turn to be filled with childlike excitement. I had never anticipated that my day in Turkey would include meeting a calligrapher who is so interested in my mother language, especially one who was so innovative in fusing his Islamic heritage and my culture to produce a design so strangely beautiful and beyond my imagination. In that moment, I felt an amazing sense of freedom and hope, because our differences were shed, and we were joined by a stronger joy and appreciation for art. Although idealistic and hyperbolic, the new fusion character was personally uplifting because I saw it as a symbol of peace triumphing over divided nations.

Theodore C. Bestor mentions in his article, Inquisitive Observation, that his anthropological site found him, “sometimes spontaneously, sometimes by design” (316). He notes that the most effective way to find a site is not to attempt to find the “ideal project” but instead allow serendipity to take its course. Bestor says, “I realize now that networks choose me much more than I can possibly select them…the trick to fieldwork is figuring out how to harness networks that present themselves, as well as how to expand upon them (316). Never planning to enter the shop, I was about to dismiss the man outside as just another Turkish storekeeper, who imposes attention grabbers upon tourists by incorrectly guessing their ethnicities. Until I had met the calligrapher, I have never felt so connected to the wisdom that “often, seemingly unlikely people will turn out to have incredible amounts of information” (Bestor, 328). This experience taught me that fieldwork is about wandering around with an open mind, and “taking advantage of chance encounters,” which provides unexpected opportunities that leads one closer towards lessons of great magnitude, that not only enrich our anthropological findings but also our lives (Bestor, 328).

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