At first glance, Konya was a little disconcerting: mosques, lots of them, squatting among warehouses, apartments, and tidy green lawns, the harsh July sun radiating off their bright aluminum domes. With scarcely a bush in sight, the city’s industrial suburbs looked spare, almost severe, in their neatness. In the distance, against a cloudless blue sky, barren mountains formed a stark brown backdrop to this metropolis on the Turkish steppes. To me, it all looked a little alien, even intimidating.
It wasn’t like I hadn’t seen a mosque before. There’d been plenty in Istanbul, but there they’d been stately historical relics: the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Suleiman Mosque. Here they were like living, breathing things, fresh, vibrant, somehow assertive. And they were everywhere.
I admit, of course, I’d been on edge even before we got here. The guidebooks had said Konya was one of the most conservative places in the country. Western women, they said, had been harassed here. I could just imagine my wife and me walking the streets, encountering dirty looks from sour, disapproving old curmudgeons.
An incident on our bus to Konya that morning hadn’t helped. We’d stopped at a dusty café in the middle of nowhere to pick up a guy who wanted to load a pile of boxes into the bus’s storage compartment. The driver was trying to explain that the bus couldn’t handle it all. Voices rose, and suddenly the two men were pushing each other. Six or seven people, men and women, charged out from the café, knocked the driver to the ground, and started punching and kicking him. The assistant driver finally broke things up and we continued on our way minus the guy and his boxes, but I couldn’t help wondering what we were getting ourselves into.
Then again, that was, in a sense, why we were here. We wanted to experience at least something of Turkey without its lipstick on. If we stuck to the standard tourist haunts—Istanbul, Cappadocia, the Mediterranean playgrounds—would we really be seeing anything?
Once we got to the central bus terminal and found the tram for downtown, I settled in with my guidebook. As we bumped along toward the center of town, a slim young man in dark slacks and short-sleeved shirt walked up the aisle behind us and asked if he could help. He’d probably seen me glancing from my map to the streets outside trying to figure out where to get off. We told him we were trying to find the Hotel Rumi. He wasn’t sure, he said, but he thought it’d be a straight shot down Mevlana Caddesi from the next tram stop.
My wife and I climbed off the tram, shouldered our packs, and started down Mevlana, past block after block of nondescript hardware stores, clothing shops, and cafes. The street didn’t exactly ooze ambiance. It looked a little like a low-rent strip mall.
After a mile or so, we finally spotted the Rumi. We checked in, dropped off our packs, and after a short rest headed back out to check on visiting hours for the nearby Mevlana Museum. As we walked around the gated park that surrounded the museum, a chunky, bestubbled old man in rumpled white gym shorts, dingy tee-shirt, and sandals walked up alongside us and in broken English told us the museum had already closed. He was pretty much a ringer for the sort of grumpy local I’d imagined we’d encounter—except, of course, that this guy was trying to help and was about as intimidating as those harmless old timers I’d see puttering around their summer gardens back home. We waved our thanks and walked over to a nearby shop to look at postcards.