I went to three large malls on Saturday, Kanyon and Metrocity in Levent, and Cevahir mall in Şişli. The image of Turkey and Istanbul displayed in these malls and their immediate surrounding could not be more different from the Istanbul that comes to most people’s minds.

For all of Singapore’s reputation as a shopping paradise, I daresay Istanbul has us beat. They have global departmental stores, local brands that would fit right into New York, and every single high-end store you could think of that. There are no small, hole-in-the-wall shops run by old mustachioed men selling carpets or perfumes here, nor do you see hoardes of people single-mindedly going about their business like they do in Eminönü, the best outdoor market here in Istanbul, I think. Here, the clientle is surprisingly regular. Families, students, executives browsing after work–just your regular Turkish folk.

Step outside the mall and the surroundings provide another mild surprise. Everything’s recently built and strangely enough, the roads, office buildings and flyovers remind me of Kuala Lumpur. Impressive and bright spanking new.

I don’t expect the whole of Istanbul to be cobblestoned and filled with old headscarfed women, simit sellers and exotic pazars, but it was slightly disorienting to look around and feel like I was in another city. Outside of the main tourist centre, everything else is… regular. People just want to earn money, conduct their business and better their lives. They don’t want to replicate the inefficient styles of the bazaar district–unless it helps them progress.

It happens everwhere, but I guess for Turkey’s tourist image, it’s better for them to promote and publicise the image of ancient palaces, mosques, pazars and nargileh, when in fact it forms just a very small portion of the real ‘Turkish’ life. Turks probably don’t care much for all the exoticism when it portrays them as backward to the world.

As one of those guilty tourists, I specifically chose to stay in Cihanghir instead of the more modern Şişli district. I guess I want, I need Istanbul to be ‘exotic.’ I want the crazy streets, the eccentric people,the numerous visible mosques and all the constant reminders of the Ottoman empire. I’m insisting on keeping up this facade because all that appeals to me. If I wanted to stay in a facsimile of Kuala Lumpur, I would have stayed in Singapore.

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