Bribing our way to our belongings

We spent days at the docks trying to claim our belongings that we shipped from America. Our first step was to go to the Mega Shipping office to get our Ordinals and pay them for forms. The office looked exactly like its counterpart in Secaucus, NJ – same Ataturk pictures, same cubicles, same women with great bodies and fish faces. This time, Elif’s stepfather Cos finally hooked us up – his friend is the retired former-director of Istanbul’s whole import-export shipping operation! So we went from Mega Shipping to meet with him at the docks.

We stopped in the dock’s café for some tea and it was a genuine Turkish coffeehouse – Elif was the only woman in the place. I walked up to the kitchen to order, and the g

Bosphorus Bridge in Istanbul, Turkey, at night...
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uy told me to sit down; a Kurd caught my accent immediately and yelled at the waiter, “We have guests from Germany, what are you making them wait for?” Then I was beckoned to sit with the Kurd, and I ended up at a full table of characters who were too shy to talk with me but sat there grinning. So I talked with them. The Kurd was from Kars, which we visited 2 years ago, and they couldn’t believe that we went there. Then he said (after I told him we were American), “So, the bombs got you scared there?” And I said, well, yes, and he said something which roughly translates as “I fucking hate those stinking Arabs and I’d like to stick bombs up that faggot Bin Laden’s nose and blow up his asshole!” – which got the whole place laughing and shouting in agreement. They all paid for the tea and one of them gave me their card and said that if we ever got our stuff out of shipping (what did that mean?), they’d deliver it to our house for only 40 bucks.

We met Cos’ director friend, who whisked us inside the building by the docks, and I’d never seen anything like it in my life. He was regarded as I suppose Mickey Mantle would be if he were suddenly to come back to life and walk in front of Yankee Stadium. All sorts of boys sprang to his attention, following him everywhere, all at our service. Mehmet, get this xeroxed. You there, get this stamp. We followed him and his new entourage up the stairs, down the hall, down to the basement, then up, around the back, and past a starving attack dog.

The whole time we were at the docks getting our belongings, everyone got paid for the requisite signatures and stamps, while joking about how little has changed since Ottoman times.  The Ottoman empire was so far-flung that it required a huge bureaucracy to run it, which encouraged corruption. Until the 1980’s, bribery was an unspoken dirty fact of Turkish life, but during the happy times of Reagan and Thatcher, Prime Minister Ozal, privatizing everything and turning Turkey into a “Little America,” went on TV and issued an open welcome to bribery. Under the “greed is good” rubric, Ozal said, “My government worker knows how to take care of himself; the government is not rich enough to pay you guys, so you guys take care of yourselves.”

Dilek constantly has problems with bribery in the courts; Bakirkoy, where her office is located, is famous with its corruption. Everything needs stamps, or at least notification that something arrived in your dossier, and the clerks, the schedulers, the secretaries, and even the stenographers need to be greased. If you don’t tip people in the Bakirkoy courts, they won’t do anything for you and even will make it hard on you in the future. Dilek much prefers Sirkeci, where they accept tips but usually won’t punish you if they don’t get them. But even there, the judges think it’s harmless because the people earn so little, but it changes the whole psychology of the judicial system.

So as long as we kept the money flowing, the first 15 stamps our paperwork needed were acquired effortlessly – albeit with a lot of running around – but then things started to go wrong. One door containing an important stamp needed a passcode, which was only known by one woman, who was “yok” – not there, not existent. So the director said to us, let’s do lunch. Turns out the director now has his own shipping business on the side which makes great use of his government connections – which is why everyone was snapping to his attention. His office for the new business looked nothing like the grimy Russian-esque offices at the docks – it was a real Turkish old-boys’ club. The office had a sauna, a barbecue on a balcony overlooking the Bosphorus, and an old villagewoman slave who created some magical eastern witchcraft in the kitchen, preparing some of the most amazing beans for lunch I’d ever had. We and ate and joked, then we sat on their leather couches as and they smoked, and smoked, and drank coffee. It was like Turkey in Elia Kazan’s “America, America.”

We got back to the docks and the passcode woman showed up, but then another problem came up – our inventory stated that we had CD’s, which could be seen as carrying propaganda (pro-Kurdish; pro-Islamic), which might mean that our belongings would get sent to Ankara for inspection, which might uncover our COUP films, which would be a mess. So we had to rewrite the inventory from scratch, which wasn’t a big deal, but then another disaster struck – Elif’s identification shows nothing saying that she ever entered this country. It turns out that when Passport Control let us in at the airport, they looked at our cats and said “Cute kittens!” and didn’t check the paperwork; they said “Eniste! Eniste!” to me (meaning I was now welcome into Turkey as their “Brother-in-law!”) – but they forgot, in all their excitement, to stamp Elif’s passport. So now we couldn’t get critical Stamp Number Nineteen to get our stuff at the docks.

We called the airport, and her mother Dilek has to go to the airport to get a paper saying Elif entered the country. Normally Elif would have to do it, but Elif’s stepfather Cos is a judge, so they waived that, but there was no way we were going to get our stuff by the end of the day. So our Former-Director-of the-Whole-Shebang guide took us to the final gate of this castle, the boat itself. It wasn’t unloaded yet, and there was a huge crowd. He gladhanded his way to the current big cheese, backslapping one guy (“Hey, you walk gracefully for a Kurd!”) and shouting at another old chum (“You animal you, what’s a monkey like you gonna do with that fancy computer!”). I really believe that someday we will be able to get our worldly possessions off the boat, but not until after the new year. It’s not for nothing that the Turkish word for “apply” (as in “fill out an application for something”) is “basvurmak,” which means “to hit your head” (“bas” – head; “vurmak” – to hit)! It’s said that most people who ship stuff to Turkey from Europe end up abandoning it after trying to claim it after a week.



I contracted a case of the dread Siberian Flu, which meant that Elif and her mom had to go down to the docks to get our stuff from shipping without me.  I felt terrible for them, as it sounds like it was much less fun than we had the first day we went down to the docks. They spent the whole day almost knee-deep in snow and slush, freezing, while they collected about 15 more signatures. It’s a fluke that this week Istanbul has colder weather than anywhere else in Turkey, including Samsun and all the places in the middle of the country that ought to be around zero degrees by now. Elif and Dilek also had the fun experience of not having a bathroom anywhere nearby – for men or for women. (When the workers there had requested one, a government official came and said, “Well, what have you been doing until now?”, and they said, “Walking outside and peeing against a wall,” and the guy said, “OK, you can continue doing that.”) This time, the main inspector decided that he indeed would open our stuff, which would mean they’d find the 200 copies of E’s CD and dozens of copies of our film COUP, all of which might be sent to Ankara for inspection, which would not be a good thing.  So Elif’s mother Dilek called Cos, who called his former-head-of-the-whole-operation friend, who called the current head-of-the-whole-operation, who called the head inspector and told him not to inspect our stuff.  But the current head inspector had to prove to all of his lackeys and syncophants and workers that he couldn’t be intimidated or circumvented, so he ordered a random opening of six of our boxes that weren’t marked “CD’s,” which was performed on the spot, although no one was to really look inside.  One of his “interns” was sucking up to him, imploring him to open them all and do a thorough inspection, to show off how diligent he was. Later, the same guy was sucking up to Elif and Dilek asking if he could help (for money, was the implication) them to load the belongings onto the truck.  Elif did let the guy help, but got herself lost when it came time to pay him. Finally, one of the labor-union (read: mafia) truck drivers (who muscle the action away from other hopeful workers) drove our stuff to our apartment. Elif and Dilek helped load the truck, and our belongings arrived at the very end of the day; I’d spent the whole day in a horizontal position, my head spinning from the dread Siberian Flu.

The next day, I tried to fix Dilek’s computer – the video card was turning the screen to black 5 minutes after starting it up – but it was dead. So Cos mentioned the problem to a “friend” on the sea bus (the fast Dutch boat which goes from Europe to Asia in 20 minutes) and lo and behold, the friend takes Dilek’s 486 to “repair” it, deems it totalled, and gives the judge a new P3-667 as a “gift.” Dilek is incredibly angry, because she knows it’s a bribe in the hopes of getting special service from Cos later, but it’s a fait accompli. Dilek then demanded her old computer back so she could at least try to get Elif’s emails from America off of it, which have sentimental value, but the old computer had been thrown away. Dilek cried all night, which made Cos wish he hadn’t been born – which placed Cos’ wishes, finally, in accord with those of Elif.

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