All these impressions are crowding in my head. Istanbul. I just returned and it feels already like a distant memory. I wrote in my journal every day, “must remember…” here are some–
Calls to prayer. Five a day. issuing forth from speakers high in the minarets of the mosques throughout the city. Call-and-response in Arabic. I recorded this music of men’s voices twice. once from the Blue Mosque, once on a walk along Divan Yolu, from about five mosques. Dueling muezzin. i walked across Galata Bridge one night and half way across the calls began from the old city, across the Golden Horn swirling in the air with the sounds of buses and cars and the honking of the taxi drivers; of the men fishing from the bridge; of the city wind and with the smell of brine.
Every day i studied the Turkish phrase book, rolling the consonants over my tongue, trying to match the sound my voice made with the sounds i heard on the street, with the sounds of my Turkish friends. Every day, I carried that little book with me, and looked through it before i went into a shop or restaurant or climbed onto a bus. Every day I chickened out and just spoke English. It was like walking around in a big hamster ball, or wrapped in plastic. Must learn another language. This being mono-lingual business is so…constraining.
Roaming around with my Turkish friends, my Portuguese friends, my Polish friend. We all met at a summer school in Denmark last summer, and six of us went to this conference. Two were on the Organizing Committee, our two Turks. Generous hosts, they had so much to do, so many details to attend to, so many people needed their attention–yet they spent a LOT of time with us. The Vikings in Turkey. We walked along Istiklal Caddesi, bought some filled bread to share, watched the women make it–they sit in the window of the restaurant and with long narrow sticks roll out dough with swift graceful motions, fill it with spinach or cheese or meat or something else, fold it and cook it on a big round stone griddle between them. “They are not from Istanbul, I can guarantee that, these two,” asserted Onur. He asked where they were from, and told me–i forget the names of the villages from which they came.
A man who tried to sell me a carpet (one among many) he has been working in the family business for 17 of his 33 years. He has an older brother and younger sister. He did his obligatory military service and came back to the city to sell carpets. “We are Kurds, not from here. We are always working, 16 hours a day. Very hard,” and then he remembered he was supposed to sell me something, and he said, “but I don’t mind, because I have met you, and we have this nice talk.” I said to him, “I don’t want to waste your time, I should go..” and then his uncle appeared, “This is my Uncle,” and he told me his name, and Uncle began to take carpets out from stacks, the wool ones that featured patterns representing the story of Noah’s Ark, “made in the area where the ark was built, you see, the mountain here, the sea, and the animals, male and female, male and female…”
The uncle smiled and pulled out another carpet, opening it on the floor. My young friend picked it up and came to sit next to me, “see the blue, like the blue of your beautiful eyes–”
“How can you tell what colour my eyes are? My glasses have been dirty since I started grad school…” I protested. He continued, smiling, “this brown is from the tobacco leaves, the dark blue is indigo, this is from grape vine leaf,…and look–” he held his lighter to a fringe of the carpet, “it cannot burn”.
I had told him already that I was not wealthy, tried to explain that though I am from North America, and a single woman, and about to begin teaching, I am not yet a professor (will I ever be?) and am not wealthy. “Use the cards, you can?” he had been smiling and persistent. He didn’t know that earlier that week I had used my card to buy a small Kilim and two plates from yet another smooth-talking sales guy–I hadn’t yet read the part in the guidebook that said, “don’t feel bad when they start pulling carpets out…” That time, I had signed the paper, stuffed it into my back pocket and got out of there fast as I could, [but not fast enough, clearly].
this time, I said to my young friend, “Okay, I know, I know–I’m from North America, you think i’m affluent, and I am, in comparison to most of the world, but really, I don’t have much money, i’m a student, i have debt and more and more as time goes on, and we live with these heart-wrenching contradictions, i’m in your country and we are living out the consequences of globalization and…” He kinda glazed over, his smile faltered–he had enough English to sell carpets, not analyze the political economy, you know? I sputtered to a halt…” ah, yea. lookit, I have to go, really, you have been very kind, thank you for the tea, and the visit, and I’m sorry to waste your time”, I said, “I will come back when I am a professor and then I will buy a carpet from you”. He was sweet about it, gave me his card, asked me to e-mail him, told me he loved me anyway.
“will you e-mail me from Canada?” he asked, “send me an e-mail,” and I told him I would. I will, too.
I haven’t been the target of so much male attention since i was straight! they line the streets of the old city, the men who work in restaurants and carpet shops. They find the tourists. We are easy to spot. They approach us and say, “can I help you find something?” and “Where are you from?” If you answer, you’re in it. If you stop to look at a t-shirt or a shawl or a piece of ceramic or porcelain, you are in it. If you are a woman alone, they want to know how old you are, whether you’re married, and if not, whether you have a boyfriend, or if you might want one–
uh. no, thanks.
So many times men told me they loved me, and asked if I wanted a boyfriend. I said, ‘well, you know, i’m not really the marrying kind…’
One young man told me, “Two Japanese girls were in here yesterday, and when I ask ed one of them to marry me, she said ‘yes’!” I said, uh, guess you’re gonna be a bit more careful from now on about that question, eh? He smiled.
The tea! clear tea with sugar, served in small glasses on saucers. perfect. everywhere, men walking through the streets, in the bazaars, in the shops with trays of tea in those delicate glasses. And bread! Braided breads, sort of like pretzels but softer, warm, chewy–the men carried trays loaded with this soft fragrant bread on their heads, yelling that they had them for sale. and sandwiches! “Biro Biro Biro!” the men would holler, and make sandwiches there on their carts. Kofte and kebab and fish–with lettuce and peppers and onions and even french fries stuffed into the bread. Very fine. And baklava! oh my. flaky filo nuts honey light sweet crunchy smooth–with a rich thick Turkish coffee–ohboy.
I was lonesome for women. the second week I was there, I was without my Viking posse, my Turkish friends Gökçe and Onur who so graciously showed us ways around, my Portuguese friends, Ana and Marcelo (“you are a Fucking Hurricane, Erin!” my dear Marcelo told me), my Polish friend, Anna–serious mostly with a wide streak of party animal. surprising. They all left back to their homes and lives and I stayed in a tiny hotel in the heart of Sultanahmet, right across from the Blue Mosque.
There were women everywhere, women who lived and worked in Istanbul, of course, but they didn’t talk to me. Many of the Turks met my eye and nodded and smiled at me as I passed, men and women both, but only men spoke. Even the women who sat on the sidewalks beside the knitted slippers and woven scarves and embroidered shawls they were selling did not hawk their wares. They sat quiet and said nothing as the Canadians and Americans and Japanese people passed by, touched the cloth they had for sale, picked up a slipper and turned it in our hands. They bartered but without the urgency and flair of their brothers.
I went to a Hamam, a Turkish bath, one day, well, I went once with my friend Anna, and she had a massage, but I didn’t. It was a hotel hamam, so it wasn’t–it was kinda ‘dumbed down’ for the tourists. Later that day, as we were wandering around lost, we met a man who showed us another hamam, this one more than 500 years old, and he showed us the women’s entrance and gave us a card and introduced us to the women working there.
Where did they come from, these guys? the street would be deserted and a man would appear and ask what you were looking for and show you where his friends restaurant was, or take you to a hamam or give you a brochure for a car rental place (run by his cousin) or…
So a couple days later, I went back to that 500 year old hamam, and it was early in the day, i was the only woman in there, besides the round friendly brown woman running the place. She pointed me toward a change room, it looked like my Grandma and Grandpa’s front porch, all glassed in, a wooden door, a vinyl-covered bench, linoleum floor with a slope to it–and handed me a cloth to wrap myself with. When i emerged, she pointed to the bath itself. She said, “wash, madame”. there was a big marble slab, heated from within, and all around the room were basins with taps– you mixed the cold and hot water to your taste in the basins, then scooped it out with a dipper or bowl and washed yourself that way. I did as I was told and lay on the slab, looking up at the domed roof through the round coloured glass inset in the plaster. the sky was cloudy and by turns red, white, blue…
Finally my friend came in again, wearing only red panties. She bade me wash again, and indicated i lay on my stomach. Soap, loofah mitt, vigorous scrup front and back–“America?” she asked, when i turned over on my back.
“oh, Canada! Very nice good country.”
“Do you know anyone there?” many of the men i had met that week told me of a cousin in Calgary, or a friend in Toronto. She didn’t understand my question, and just smiled at me as she rubbed my legs with the mitt. Our conversation was limited to smiles and her asking, “nice? good?” when she was doing that whole soapy massage thing.
nice good indeed. later on crackbook, my Turkish friend told me, “those women have such stories, Erin, it’s too bad you couldn’t hear them”. yes. We were so close to connection, this woman and I, but so far away. her hands were sure, she was round and smooth and generous. We could tell something, but not much about each other’s lives. not many years between us, I think, but our experiences were–worlds apart no doubt about it.
After she was done, she invited me to stay as long as i wanted. I wandered about the rooms, found the hottest one and cooked in there for a while. 500 years. I tried to hear the stories soaked into the marble. I sat still and listened. I didn’t hear anything though. It was not for me to see the ghosts of that place. But it was good there. I didn’t want to leave, but I wanted to experience as much of the city as i could before i had to return to the rush and bustle of my Canadian life.
I washed and stretched and returned to my clothes. I tipped the woman and thanked her again. I walked up the narrow stairs into the uncertain sunlight and crossed the street to a small park. I felt loose and empty and calm.Still lonesome for women, though. What are our lives like there? What is the women’s movement like there? There is one, there is one everywhere in the world. I didn’t really look, though. not this visit. next time.
cats and dogs everywhere! did i talk about them yet? all the dogs wore either tags on their ears or collars indicating they had been neutered or spayed, and checked out for diseases and so on. They were at home there in the city, taking care of their own business, not domesticated, but neither were they feral. Just dogs. and cats. the cats were playful and would come to rub against your leg. they were kinda like big furry pigeons, the cats. The dogs were more aloof, funny enough.
I started to see the poverty finally in my last day or two there. A woman came up to me in the market on the Asian side of the Bosphorous. she pointed to a restaurant, i thought she was like the men, and inviting me to eat there. then she pointed to her belly and said something, “bibi”, she said. i said, “baby? you’re going to have a baby?” she nodded and said, “I have five”. She had a look i know from here, kind of vacant and distant. Like she wasn’t living in her body, kind of. She smiled in a vague kind of way. then she repeated her request for money for food, in Turkish. I gave her a few lira. i said, “you’re too young for so many babies”, she smiled and nodded and drifted away.
Then another woman appeared, she was very pregnant and she held out her hand and said, “bibi” rubbing her pregnant self. I know whatever i give will do nothing. it will not make one bit of difference. I didn’t have any change left. I shook my head, I said, “no, sorry” she kept talking and gesturing and wouldn’t leave my side until I turned left and went up a narrow street in the market. she dropped away. later I saw her walking with another woman with a baby on her hip.
Little children, maybe 6 or 7 years old, kneeling on squares of cloth, played cheap plastic whistles with keyboards. they were in front of the ferries or at the entrances of markets. kept their eyes down and serious expressions. they played Mozart, or Chopin, the simple arrangements we all recognize. Younger kids would just play the scales over and over.
When i got home, I went to see my friend D who is Turkish. I said, “being in Istanbul, it made me love you even more. You must be SO homesick!”
“oh, no,” she said, “I am working, I am fine”. But she made us Turkish coffee, and I brought her some Lokum, and when she bit into her first piece, she burst into tears.
” oh dear,” she sniffled, “–I guess I miss Turkey after all”.