An American in Turkey: A Cyclist’s Take on Donald Trump and His Views On Muslims

By Mahmoud Istanbouli

Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”

That was a quote Trump himself read out loud at a rally in South Carolina. And when Barack Obama chose not to attend US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s funeral, Trump tweeted: “I wonder if President Obama would have attended the funeral of Justice Scalia if it were held in a Mosque?” But he’s gone a step further: he’s also called for a scorched earth strategy towards the Middle East, bombing civilians and targeting terrorists’ families.

I find comments like these troubling. They show a complete lack of respect towards Muslims, a group of people I have interacted with, shared food with, and have come to greatly admire.

***

Over the years, I’ve heard this story a few times: my parents had taken me out to San Antonio Rancho Park in the Santa Cruz mountains, and a stranger approached them and said, tongue-in-cheek: “There’s something wrong with that kid. He’s laughing too much.” That has always been my proudest moment. But sadly, the laughter would come to a halt. We left Sunnyvale, California and moved to Ottawa, Ontario. For nine years, I attended the same school. Its system and people did not work for me. I came to believe I had no control over my own destiny, and that I was not the commander of my own ship. In California, I had never stepped away from the spotlight. In Ottawa, I came to lurk in the corners.

From my time in Ottawa until the end of my 25th year of existence, I moped about from one city to another, from one job to another, and from one clusterfuck to another. And as the years dragged on, I felt ever more a knotted, twisted feeling inside my stomach, my mind, and my soul. In this time period, I can not point to any accomplishments, whether socially, romantically, academically, or employment-wise. I dropped the ball everywhere I went. I awoke each day certain there was a tomorrow, and I goofed off in all senses of the word like there was a tomorrow.

That time period ended with a year long stint teaching English in Taiwan, which was without doubt the lowest extended point in my life. I worked at a cram school, and I was a complete train wreck. I had unkempt, knotted hair down to my shoulders that I let cover my face. I let people trample all over me like a doormat. In my final two weeks, a co-worker took me aside and succinctly summed up my time at work: “Ian, you’ve been here a year, and everyone hates you. Even I stay away from you.” Obviously, there were a few odd exceptions, but no more than I could count on two hands. I have thought about that berating everyday since it happened. I let down far too many people in my life who had invested in me, who had stuck their neck out for me. You do no one a favour, particularly yourself, by not standing in the spotlight.

From my time in Taiwan, there were only two other moments worth mentioning: booking my flight back home and a scooter accident. The scooter accident happened on a backcountry road in Dayuan. From what I was told through broken English, I had torn a muscle in my foot. I was furious. The week before the accident, I had summited Taiwan’s highest peak, and in a rare moment of inspiration, I opted to cycle the length of New Zealand. That bum foot wrecked havoc on that plan. But under the surgery lights, I vowed that if I ever walked again, I would do something much more challenging than cycling across New Zealand.

After some consideration, I settled on cycling the length of Turkey. I wanted to see a Muslim country because my motherland, America, had been at war with Islam since 9/11. To me this trip was non-negotiable: Either I follow through on this idea or I signal to myself and the world that I would just call it quits on my life. I had decided to jump off a cliff after the cycling if I couldn’t see myself fitting into society.

So to Turkey I went, and there, in Istanbul, a few months after my surgery, I lugged an enormous cardboard box, one morning at dawn, that contained my bicycle and two duffel bags across the harbour front of Yeşilköy to a ferry that would eventually take me to Yalova, the starting spot of a 6,500 km solo trip that would see me cycle 3,500 km through the western half of Turkey and 3,000 km through the Balkans and the Germanic region of the Alps.

The first seven weeks of this trip was the most stressful period I have ever experienced. With the exception of one past job, this was the only time in my entire life, at 25, no less, where I was applying myself, and seeing something through. Before that, I always moped through the day certain my actions would have no impact on the direction of my life. While cycling, I felt almost no physical pain in those initial seven weeks, but my mind was stretched beyond anything I had ever felt reasonable or thought possible. In short, sometime not too far after grade 4, I stalled, and now, cycling along highways and country roads in Turkey, I was trying to catch up to where I should be.

There were a million stresses. A constant language barrier. Night in and night out, I had no idea where I would sleep. I only slept roadside in my tent or at strangers’ places who had invited me in when I happened to cycle by them. I would spend hours repairing the simplest of bicycle fixes and I had no idea where I was because I never purchased a map. There were a plethora of noises and strangers at night that would prevent me from sleeping more than four hours straight. The elements were beating me – the cold, the rain, the heat, and hail. And all the while, with the exception of the odd off day, I was cycling between 100 and 150 kilometers daily.

The trip was full of unforeseen variables. One night, wild dogs would wake me up; the next, the stench from a pile of poo I accidentally pitched my tent on. But through it all, there was one constant: a friendly Turk always looking to help me out. Three or four times, a bicycle mechanic repaired my bicycle for free. Maybe twice a week, a Turk would flag me down and host me for the night. Free food was a daily occurrence. And I was served tea upwards of seven times a day.

At times I’d stop for a few days, and in Yalova, I came to know one man’s family particularly well. His name was Soner. I met Soner’s friend in my first hour of cycling. I was unsure where I could cross the highway. He eagerly gave me guidance, and I cycled off. A day later; however, I found myself back in Yalova, since I needed to go to Istanbul to buy new bicycle panniers. Again, by complete chance, I bumped into Soner’s friend on the street, and he said his friend would be happy to host me. I spent two nights at Soner’s, sleeping in his auto work shop.

Seven weeks later, on a Saturday, I woke up in Iznik, on the floor of a local pottery artist’s shop. Her mother put on a feast of a breakfast for me. Later that day, I headed over to Yalova to crash at Soner’s again. When I arrived, we parked my bicycle in his store, and he brought me up to his flat for a bath. Then, his family and I gathered around his television and watched Germany play Ghana to a 2-2 tie in the Brazilian World Cup. That day was my 26th birthday. Neither the artist nor Soner ever found out it was my birthday. It was just another day for me cycling across Turkey.

The next day, Soner gathered his family, 30 plus people, and we drove off to the beach. I spent the day eating barbeque and playing in water. Our favorite game was to impersonate Cristiano Ronaldo while doing diving headers in the Mediterranean waters. We had a lot of fun. A few days later, I left for Bulgaria.

When I came to Turkey, I had only one goal: to see something through. But somewhere between when I started my trip in Yalova and cycled those wretched 3,500 km, I left a lot of anxiety, fears, stress, tension, and doubt on the sides of the roads I cycled. And I have become addicted to cycling because cycling came to remind me that life is self-powered, that I am the commander of my own ship. But what helped me through the ride was the support I received from the locals. This is the point I wanted to emphasize, and it’s why I am greatly saddened by Trump’s vitriolic comments towards Muslims. There’s a thing or two to like about Trump, in particular he lacks our era’s suffocating political correctness and his emphasis on highlighting globalization’s detrimental impact on all but a few niche segments of society. But with regard to his views on Muslims, he’s crossed a line and entered into the territory of Nazism.

As Trump continues to dominate the news cycle and positions himself to become the Republican nominee, I wanted you to know that: this nasty image that Donald presents of all Muslims being terrorists who hate Westerners is far from what I experienced. Less than two years ago, I was cycling across Turkey just attempting to get my life to inch forward. Very unintentionally, I came to be the man I always wanted to be – that kid that someone facetiously pointed out and said there was something wrong with because he was laughing too much. And a lot of that had to do with those construction workers in Orhangazi, Turkey who let me sleep at their worksite and brought me breakfast the next morning. That was my first night on the road.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*