72 hours of Raki, Race Cars and Rock and Roll in Istanbul

The sun was just rising over the rooftops and mosques as our 1980’s Mercedes sprinter van sped across the Bosphorus. Blurry-eyed and still drunk on Raki from the night before, we were on our way to Ataturk airport to catch the next flight to Baku, Azerbaijan. As Istanbul disappeared behind us, I tried to wrap my throbbing head around the whirlwind 72 hours we’d just spent on the continental divide. 

Silver City Bound travelled to Turkey in order to collaborate with Country For Syria, an Istanbul-based band that plays a mix of American and Arabic folk music. Fronted by an American accordionist, Owen Harris, Country For Syria includes musicians from Syria, Kurdistan, Iraq, and Turkey and is focused on raising awareness about the refugee crisis. 

Our joint concert was held Saturday night at a vintage furniture store & cafe called Atolye Kafasi, full of refurbished tables and Turkish hipsters drinking tea and eating chocolate cake. Considering the absence of alcohol at the venue, we’d prepared a slow-burn concert setlist and expected a pretty mellow night. We were wrong. From the first note of music, the place turned into the most ranging sober dance party we'd ever witnessed. Young Turks and expats hippy-danced and sang along to country songs. More and more people arrived and we kept the music rolling late into the night. 

 

On Sunday evening we helped Owen and his girlfriend Başak carry the instruments and equipment from our hotel back to Owen’s apartment on the Asian side of IstanbulHauling a full-sized, 30-pound accordion on my back on a ferry across the Bosphorus and then up the winding, rush-hour-jammed streets of Kadıköy, put my usual commute from Brooklyn to the Lower East Side into new perspective. 

We dropped off the gear and met the rest of the band at one of their favorite local spots. Six Americans, Two Syrians, a Kurd, a Palestinian-American, an Armenian-American, and two Jewish accordionists sitting around the table eating eggplant and drinking Raki. The conversation careened from lighthearted to serious, from cosmopolitan to intensely personal. The young Syrian guitarist Bashar talked about how much he missed the food back home in Aleppo. Attar, the Kurdish videographer, was trying to convince Owen’s American friend from home to go with him on a yoga retreat the next weekend on the Mediterranean, but she wanted to accompany Owen instead on a trip to play circus music for orphans on the Syrian border. The night ended with another round of drinks and promises all around that we would see each other again either in Turkey or the USA. It’s amazing how quickly you can grow close to people you only met the day before. 

By the time we left the bar, the return ferries were no longer running. Because of widespread rioting from a soccer match earlier in the day, the city had closed one of the two bridges and taxis were refusing to drive to the European side. We took a public bus back across the Bosphorus and then hailed a cab. The driver who stopped to pick us up had some kind of death wish. His arms were covered in mean scars and he drove like a formula one racer—never breaking, only down-shifting, and furiously dodging between highway lanes whenever possible. At around three in the morning we collapsed in our hotel rooms, alarms set for two hours later. I fell asleep with the sensation of still being in motion and the echoes of Turkish heavy metal, car horns and drunken voices reverberating up from the streets below. 

To travel is to exalt in the feeling of things being both strange and familiar—to search for the experiences that make you suddenly awake to the enormity of the world. The more we travel, the more we become addicted to these small moments of adventure and genuine human connection.