The Uses and Abuses of God

We reached the front of the mosque at almost the same time. But when we got to the wall, we were sent away at our own angles. Those of us who hadn't been to a mosque like this made lazy, looping circuits, trying but failing to take it all in. Their expression was affirmation I'd done well. But I had my own reasons for being there, and tour guiding wasn't first among them.

When the congregation stood for prayer, I marched desperately through, across and against Turks, but couldn't break past the second row. Everyone, apparently, had been feeling what I was, desperate to get as close to Mecca as possible, the meter-and-change between each row of dire necessity to cross despite the thousands of miles that remained till Arabia. I was, at least, practically behind the Imam when the prayer began, which put me closer to God and met my purpose: I needed His thoughts on the predicament I found myself in.

You could say, then, that I was using Him.

We started the prayer and suddenly I felt the heat; Solomon's Mosque was recently restored, and air conditioning would not have been faithful to Sinan's vision. There was a fat, sweaty man on my left and a bony teenager on my right. Both pressed up against me with equal sincerity. The warmth and the pressure left me lightheaded, worse still because, of course, no one around me had heard of deodorant. Still, I was the one using God, and if this was all I'd suffer for it, I accepted.

Sultan Solomon ruled at the empire's peak, more than two centuries after its emergence but a full 450 years before its disestablishment. He sent his armies to conquer Hungary (and did), fought the Portuguese out of the Red Sea, dispatched pirates to the North Atlantic and shipped weapons to Sumatra. But did he ever face terribly wearying personal choices, or did he have no comprehension of apparent no-win scenarios?

Humans, like their Creator, have limitless imagination. This mosque, his mosque, was evidence enough. But unlike Him, we do not have infinite capacity. We are failed deities. We try and we stumble, and we have few resources to fall back on. So we end up as I did, prostrated pathetically after the prayer, tears streaming from my cheeks into a fresh carpet, a product of the rising Turkish economic power that meant nothing to me as I begged Him: Guide me to what is best for me.

The Turks are the Muslim world's Germans -- not only have they conquered practically everyone else, but even after they were pounded into the ground in a World War, still they come back to life while everyone else is making a mockery of sovereignty. Istanbul, the Ottoman capital, was bursting with energy, single-mindedly set on recovering its glory. For 1,600 years, it was the capital of all Romans, then Greek Romans, then Muslim Romans, the last seat of the last Caliphate, a record of power and pluralism that outdoes the Rome it was meant to replace.

As for the rivalry between Greece and Turkey? More live in Istanbul than the birthplace of democracy. The Parthenon was even an Ottoman Friday Mosque for centuries, unchanged except for a white minaret appended to it for the muezzin's work.

This was an Ottoman approach to history: succession in place of secession. Sinan designed Solomon's Mosque to outdo Justinian's Hagia Sophia, which in turn had been built to outdo King Solomon's Temple. (Justinian claimed he'd accomplished this.) But Sinan hadn't succeeded. So they stuck with the Hagia Sophia as their primary place of worship, temporarily occupying it for centuries, hanging Arabic medallions over Orthodox icons to render it a mosque without erasing its original theology.

At the Parthenon, too, elegant calligraphic cloths were draped over the original statues, making Muslim prayer possible. We are in charge, the Ottomans were saying, and so make your monuments our own -- we are your inheritors on the Earth. But we will not get too far ahead of ourselves. It is as if instead of building a Greco-Roman Washington in our so-called New World, we were to have redecorated a Native American capital with our own mythology, establishing continuity at the moment of rupture.

I think this more honest. Empires are like people and find their own ways to justify themselves (to themselves). Some deny they are conquerors. Some expunge the very memory of anyone who might have come before them, until which time they are unable to deny any longer, by which point they are of course no longer empires. Others propose a continuum, so that what they did seems less a decision than destiny. Not merely, "we had no choice," but the more uplifting, "we were meant to do this."

It is too easy to confuse a decision for destiny.

Returned to the saeculum, I realized my group had probably already reconvened, waiting for its tour guide to lead them to the next stop on our itinerary. Though, honestly, I hadn't even planned for us to be at Solomon's Mosque when we'd left New York the night before. We were staying at a far-away airport hotel, and had only come into the Old City because we had more time and more energy than I thought we would.

I'd brought us to this mosque specifically because I'd always found it beautiful, and needed something sufficiently transcendent to perhaps spark a genuine prayer. The better for God to want to hear me. And help me. The group had just come along for the ride. And now it was over, my mind wandering, my tongue tired, my nose sick of being pressed against the floor. Too, God had already answered my prayer, and every other prayer I'd make. He invented Time. We merely moved through it, expressing anger and joy at whatever we met along the way.

I recalled then a recent dinner with a wonderful imam at a surprisingly nice Manhattan restaurant. It seemed like it had happened in another life, or to another person. Kulluna fi haqq illahi hamqa. It's a quote he shared, though whose, I can't remember. We're all idiots before God's knowledge. I felt the truth of this now -- and mused: had this been His response to a prayer I didn't yet know I'd make, a precognitive intervention from the source of all cognition?

After blessing the Prophet, I rose, washing my face with my hands. On my way out, I saw some of the women from our group. Long terrified of speaking, or even appearing, publicly, I'd become expert at masking my emotions. I mustered all the enthusiasm I could, pointing out the various aesthetic features all around us, suppressing the storms that raged within me. They turned from my explanations to the majesty of the mosque and then back again. It felt good to feel helpful. For that moment, I forgot the desperation that had driven me here and thought: Perhaps they are an answer to my prayers, too. But what kind of answer was this?

"Please, God, help me through this."

"You must give tours of Istanbul."

We exited around the north side of the mosque, walking through unexpectedly flooded lawns, ruining our shoes with mud and gunk, but taking pictures as if none of that happened. (It helped that we were all friends, or on our way to becoming friends.) We skipped down a wonderfully dark and cool staircase, and emerged onto a side street. I walked them to the tomb of Sinan, the 16th century Greek or Albanian architect who trash-talked Michelangelo, whose structures dotted the former Ottoman Empire, and whose students went as far as India to help design the Taj Mahal. I shared more anecdotes and then announced our next stop, a café with ridiculous views of the city.

The tour guide's day is a strange mix of power -- let me tell you why this is important -- and obsequiousness -- I need you to like what I'm showing you. Occasionally, it is panic: Where the hell is that thing I was supposed to show you? (Also, I hope you like it.) All I remembered of the café was the street that led there. Not its name. Not its address. Naturally, when we walked around Sinan's triangular tomb, the road seemed wrong. Where was that sharp turn to the left, which, as I remembered, would take us to the café? The only person I could admit my lapse to was Mustafa, an employee of the travel agency that had made this itinerary a reality.

Together the two of us went on to the first café we laid eyes on and raced up four flights of stairs while the group, terrifying now in its reliance on me, chatted unknowingly on the street below. But not only did the rooftop have a spectacular balcony from which to take in the city, it had enough room for all of us (about a dozen people). The group was silenced by the view of Solomon's Mosque behind us, and still quieter, if that was possible, when they saw Istanbul spread out before us, Asia to our right and Beyoglu gently to the left.

I described how the Ottoman gamble for Istanbul unfolded 600 years ago. Sultan Mehmet trained Hungarian cannon on Byzantine walls, taking two months and hundreds of thousands of soldiers to seize the city. Ever after, Mehmet was "the Conqueror." He was 21 at the time, mind you. When I turned 21, on the other hand, my good friend took me to T.G.I. Friday's. In Egypt. We practiced our Arabic with the waitress.

I think we started ordering before we'd even sat down. Mustafa proposed a vanilla and orange shisha, "a creamsicle," as I (correctly) guessed. The waiter chuckled, but on trying this apparent absurdity for himself, fell in love with it. I saw him mentally add this peculiar flavor to the menu, a bit of scandalously saccharine America spoiling the Caliph's throne. The rest of us downed cold waters, peach iced and hot mint teas, garish ice creams and turkey bacon sandwiches.

The sun eased down in the sky, and we relaxed in the dimmer light, refreshed by food, drink and smoke. To the last of us, we didn't want to leave. Forget Bosnia, forget the airport hotel, forget the tour bus scheduled to meet us at 7 (but pushed to 7:30). Forget the world back home. It was as wonderful a moment as a tourist could wish for. Istanbul filled and delighted our eyes, impossibly huge and perfectly sited, the kind of place I'd pick for a capital had I too hopes and chances of conquering the world.

For a while, I lost myself in the view. We weren't in the Middle East or Eastern Europe. All was Istanbul and only Istanbul. I realized how much I'd missed this place and these people. It had been far too long since I'd seen many of them. And how I wished I could stay. Travel, like good company, helped me hold the demons down, though it only worked for so long. Eventually, the same anxieties, the same insoluble dilemmas that had forced me to the mosque and left me on its floor, would return.

Thinking of them, reasonably and cruelly enough, merely hastened them.

The same suffocating feelings began rising within me, even in this most beautiful of places, and I despaired. If they could get me even here... What could console me? What could defend me from my own thoughts of my own circumstances? He should have. But I felt no response from Him, nothing to indicate I'd been given a direction to take, or that my will would be displaced by His. Would I ever get a response, I wondered, or did He want me to suffer through this on my own?

I became angry, unable to understand why the all-Powerful would abandon me to myself. I was so furious that my anger become a physical heat seemingly exported from within me, the kinetic response to my having dug a hole and then pushed myself into it. I felt it on my skin, and then following close on it, the rise of a far more dangerous panic, which for the first time in weeks was denied. Somehow I thought then of God watching me, internally as much as externally, and for some reason I imagined Him smiling as He did.

It was a gaze that was not patronizing, but protective, the intimate omniscience of the One beyond time, and I was all but overcome by a deep love and desire for this God, this God who smiled. I wanted right then, more than anything in the world, to speak to Him, to go back to Solomon's mosque, fall back onto that carpet, and beg and cry and demand, however idiotically, an answer.