A few weeks ago I found myself in the unusual position of being in Istanbul with no real plans; at least for a few hours. So I took a metro out to Gayrettepe, which is only one stop before Levent, my local station when I last lived in the city almost 10 years ago. However, this was not a trip down memory lane because I was drawn to an exhibition, or rather an experience that I had heard a lot about and wanted to see, or rather not see what the fuss was all about.
Dialogue in the Dark arrived in the city last December and was opened for the first time on the United Nations’ International Day of Persons with Disabilities. Essentially a blind guide takes some eight visitors on a tour through a simulated Istanbul, which spreads across a 1,500-square-meter hall next to the Gayrettepe Metro Station. However, the big difference of course is that this tour is carried out in total darkness; hence the roles are completely reversed because the people with sight need the help of their blind guide, which is contrary to the reality that the visually-impaired experience every single day.
As I did not know what to expect, I was surprised, when after being told to take off our watches and put our phones and bags into a locker, we were all given a white stick with a small ball attached. Then we were shown into the first outer room, where there was still some fractions of light so we could adjust to the darkness before being called into the next room, which was total dark. At first you almost got the sense that the person calling you was perhaps disembodied, perhaps speaking from a sound system, but very quickly you hear them around you and occasionally you even bump into them as you often do, with your fellow visitors. Our guide, one of the 30 employed on this project, who had the extra complication of communicating to us both in Turkish and English was Erhan, a man none of us had ever seen, but whose firm but calm voice, gave you the confidence to trust him completely with your safety.
Erhan lead us through a series of rooms, or rather, well simulated situations beginning with a park and progressing through a busy street until we climbed onto a tram – indeed the sounds around us left you in no doubt that it was intended to represent the same tram that rides up and down Istiklal Caddesi, the main shopping street off Taksim Square. Despite knowing that you were safely inside a simulated situation, it was strange how many times you felt both a little worried as well as intrigued, by the sounds around you. These different situations made you not only focus on every little sound, but your sense of touch also seemed to be heightened as your stick would alert you to an obstacle, like a fence a step of a bicycle, which you could only identify after having a good feel.
Towards the end we were led into a cafe, where there was another blind person eager to serve us. He read out a list of things available (no alcohol) and their prices. However, you are immediately faced with a problem that blind people must face every day – Trust. I knew I had money in my wallet, but how would I know if I was handing over a 5 Lira or a 200 Lira banknote? After a few moments, where I assume Erhan left us in silence to feel that conflict of trust, he told us that the cafe had a special machine that measures the size of each and every banknote so the correct change can be given, and yet only two of us felt brave enough to order a drink.
The final experience of our journey was climbing on board a Kadikoy ferry boat and sailing across the Bospherous to a sound track of water, ships horns and seagulls that felt so close, you instinctively wanted to lift your hands to shoo them away. Before we docked Erhan asked us all individually how long we thought we had been with him. like most, I said about forty five minutes, while someone said half an hour and another almost an hour. We had actually been there for one hour and forty minutes, which was quite a shock. Erhan explained that this is an almost universal reaction because we were so engaged with our other senses, relying on them possibly more than we had ever done before, that our sense of timing had suffered as a consequence.
In Istanbul, like many cities in the near and middle east, I often get a sense that Health & Safety precautions are quite optional. Unguarded holes in roads or pavement, and insufficient, or no safety railings whatsoever around lethal drops onto rubble or concrete, mean that several fully sighted people die and hundreds are seriously injured every single year from falls around the city; so I could only imagine how difficult and dangerous it might be for the visually impaired.
The tour was now over and so we went through a couple of rooms, where the light gradually increased until we eventually saw Erhan for the first time. It was odd, most of us had imagined what he had looked like but hardly anyone had guessed right. He was quite a good looking man, with longish hair, and because he had a tiny fraction of sight, his eyes appeared quite normal. However, the one thing I noticed, above all else, was just how comfortable and at ease he was in our world, which was quite contrary to the way we were in his, just 2 minutes earlier.
The exhibition has now run in more than 30 countries, 125 cities and over 7,000 visually impaired individuals have been able to earn an income and recognition, along with over 8 Million visitors to the event worldwide.
A recent study held by this Hamburg-based enterprise showed that an astonishing 100% of visitors who were questioned five years later remembered the experience. Around 90% of those interviewed reported feeling sensitized to the world of the blind, 55% recommended Dialogue in the Dark to their friends and family, and 34% wanted to experience the exhibition a second time.
I certainly won’t forget my Dialogue in the Dark.
The experience is set to run into the summer, so if you find yourself in Istanbul or any of the other cities around the world, where it runs please check it out – you won’t be disappointed. However, as the English commentaries in Istanbul only happen on Saturdays, avoid disappointment by booking ahead here