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Taking Time Out in Turkey

Three weeks of touring around Turkey’s east brought me back to Istanbul. It was almost as west as you can go before running into Bulgaria and Greece, but it felt like the true center of the nation. The domes of Ottoman mosques rose like soap bubbles off the hills, narrow streets crossed each other like tangled yarn, and a wide strait cut a line in the world between Europe and Asia. It was one world sitting atop another: students hawked anarchism and communism alongside vendors dealing out piles of Turkish Delight and baklava; one woman flashed me her tongue ring while another buried herself behind a silky, black charshaf, hiding everything but a small triangle of eyes and nose. ”This is the west!” I thought, waiting for a bus in front of the Aya Sofia museum. The curved, honey colored-bench was surrounded by trees, wide boulevards and cafes. A well-dressed man in a black suit took the seat next to mine, spat a huge gob of phlegm into a sponge and polished his leather shoes. ”No, this is the east!”

Just 10 hours east of here, the sound of western music disappears and no one wears tank tops. Being cool means learning to chain-smoke before you turn 13. One town resembles the last one, or the next one: a dusty little camel stop that urbanized, sprawled smokestacks and skyrises for the village poor who came for work, and sits like an oasis of plaster and concrete in the Anatolian desert. The bazaars are black with the soot of metalworkers. Bits of ash float into sacks of spices: cardamum, cinnamon, nutmeg and frankencense, and light up electric blue with the sparks of welders. Outside is the highway, and beyond that an old caravanserai: once the original market and camel trading post, now a convenient spot for high schoolers to smash beer bottles against erroded brick walls. A group of five boys followed me there, panting and skipping like dogs. They were the town’s welcoming party.

”What’s your name? You have any coins? Where are you from?” they heckled. I’m from here, from Malatya. ”Really? You’re from Malatya?” They were very excited. Sure I am!, I said, and begin pointing. See that house? That’s my house, and that’s my car. That skinny dog with all the hair scratched out–that’s my dog! And that’s my dead cat in the gutter.

We arrived at the caravanserai and 3 of the 5 produced cigarettes, stubby little butts with just a hair of tobacco dangling from the filter. They smoked them on the sly, inside one cupped hand. It was vile; they were 14 years-old and they probably picked those things off the street. They were grinning, the whole lot of them, and I didn’t know what that meant but they kept inviting me further into the caravanserai, this dingy, dark place of smashed plates, strewn litter, and old bricks piled into abandoned nests for the long-dead merchants. This feeling of menace was as thick as the suspended dust of drying cat shit. I politely said goodbye, turned and left.

I met some great people in these places too. I went to Konya, the country’s most conservative and religiously fundamentalist city in Turkey, but a friendly carpet dealer let me know that his city also had the highest consumption rate of alcohol and pornography. I drank tea and made small talk with everyone. A shy student told me he was very sorry about the attacks on the World Trade Center one year ago. ”Why?” I asked suspiciously. “Did you do it?”

Whenever I got bored of cafes and baklava shops, I went to the mosque and waited for the call to prayer. In many places, there was little else to do. The imam’s song spread from the minarets to the ends of the city. It trembled like an earthquake and slid the scale from low to high and back again; bellowed furiuosly in wide streets closest; elsewhere crept as an echo through far, narrow alleys. This sound moved in a wide wake and drew thin men in cotton vests and skullcaps to climb granite steps to the domed rooms. It cut the throat of the city. Barbers’ calloused fingers reached to quiet their radios; conversations came to quick interruptions; business stopped; and people sat, whether they pray or not. It happened four times every day.

But the conservatism soon ate away at my patience. In Jordan I was an anomoly, an American backpacker in a country most Americans fear pronouncing. In Turkey I passed through like tumbleweed, another dusty tourist, a fresh fish for the souvenier rug dealers. I spent an average of 2 days in each place before pushing to the east, where I suspected I’d find “the real Turkey.” It was an image that seemed always to be just the next dot on the map. The harder I looked, the more mindless I became of the present. In Kahta, near Mt Nemrut, a mechanic invited me for tea in his garage. We sat on wooden benches and he asked me where I was going. The Van Golu–Lake Van area.

He smiled and nodded. He’d never been there, never been more than 100 kilometers from this town, which was really just one street–a smattering of houses made of pasty plaster walls and steel pipe-frames.

Are you from Turkey? “Kurdistan. Kurdish,” he said, and pointed proudly to his heart. He spoke no English and my Turkish was decent enough only to ask the time and to say over and over how beautiful his country is. But we used these cues to walk through concepts we already grasp: Turk, Kurd, Istanbul, Kahta, Tourist.

He smiled, to show he wasn’t an animal that would eat me. I gave the same smile back and watched him lift his teacup with an oily black finger. I waited until he had sipped from his cup before I touched mine.

I think that was about as real as any place gets. The people you’re looking for rarely jump out at you like a trip on Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean. In the Turkish desert they serve you tea and teach you about the Kurds; in Bangkok they take your money and bless their wares with your cash; in India it was one dusty kid bored of minding his shop and wanting to share a muddy chai from a clay cup.

I couldn’t take another night of travelling. I was sick of these bleached roads and dried-up towns. I came back to Istanbul and decided to stay.

For the first time in too long, I met local people and made friends. After 3 nights in the tourist ghetto, I moved out and brought my things to a student’s apartment. Kubilay was a 27 year-old graduate student who introduced me to another friend, Mert. For $4 a night, I could stay in Mert’s pad, a single bedroom apartment that slept 6: Mert, his friend Barkin, their friends and girlfriends who couldn’t afford their own places. The bathroom was a squat toilet–more a home for cockroach hatchlings–and a bucket shower that we filled with water from the coffee maker. I congratulated myself on this find. It was true squalor, but I felt cool for being in the center of things. Mert and Barkin were cool guys who worked me to near screaming fights over the politics of America, Israel and Palestine, but never took it so seriously that they had to throw me out. The room was always full of cigarette smoke and my eyes burned with irritation. For two nights I was sleepless, and on the third there was an emergency.

Ama woke up crying, moaning in Turkish. She’d been fighting with Barkin earlier that day, so I thought I should stay out of it. But her moaning degenerated into shouts and then screams. A sludge of tears and snot blocked up her throat. Barkin seemed like a nice guy, but I didn’t know him so well. He had a smooth and relaxed voice; I heard it saying ”Yok, yok.” Nothing. Nothing at all. Ama is having hallucinations, Kubilay told me when I came out of bed to join the others. ”She said something was walking on her body, and it crawled in her ear.” Does she have any bite marks on her? ”No, nothing.” But Ama was unconvinced, and next she was going into convulsive panic, beating at her arms and chest. Her hands were clenched in fists that Barkin could not open. ”Lately she is having some trouble with her family and her work, and today she had a fight with Barkin. She is having a lot of stress in her life.” That wouldn’t explain this. ”Also, she is taking pills for depression, but two months ago she stopped.” Oh. Ama lost herself in total fear; her body shut down and she lay on the bed, eyes closed, hyperventalating. We wanted to take her to the hospital, but they would not send an ambulance. Five of us struggled to load her into a blanket and carry her down 4 flights of spiraling stairs. At the hospital in Taksim, a doctor sleepwalked her through an injection and sent her home. I moved out the next morning. I felt sorry for Ama and tried keep in touch with the group, but I missed sleep and clean air too much to stay with them. I still met with Kubilay and his friends, to drink cheap beer and sing folk songs in the park. “Mother, I’m in a strange land and it’s cold here! My girl left me for a foreigner and now I have no work!”

Ah, a happy, familiar theme!

“Yes, in Turkey we seem always very happy, but the truth is that we are very sad.” When they ran out of folk songs, they switched to prayers learned in elementary school. It’s humorous because the three of them have told me over and over that they are atheists, anarchists, vandalists of organized religion and enemies of everything in their corrupt and fascist state. That’s almost verbatim.

I could have left this place and gone to Sofia, the Bulgarian capital named after a goddess of wisdom, but I am eleven and a half months in transit now, and I am exhausted. No more moving, no thank you. I’m happy to stake out a place for myself and learn as much of Istanbul as possible in my last few days here. There are few places where I’ve spent as long as two weeks, as I have here, but it gives me a chance to become a part of this city. I learn the bus routes by heart and quit craning my head out the window in fear of losing my way. I become close enough to the waiters and guest house management that they stop calling me ”Sir.” I set my clock to the sound of the muezzin and learn the rest of the funky sounds of Turkey: metal spoons clinking against tulip-shaped tea cups; the brush of flatbread being turned over a smooth grill; and the mechanical roll of old, red streetcars with their human tails of fareless shoeshine boys. It is as good a place as any.

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