Slaughtering my cat

View on the Anatolian side of ?stanbul from He...
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We went away with Dilek and Cos for two days to a Greek island near Gallipoli. The last thing you want to do is go in a car with a Turk when you’re not setting the itinerary, as you’d better be prepared for an interminable drive to some nothing place with the promise there of the “good life” and relaxation, and that’s exactly the situation I found myself in. We got back on March 2nd and came home to our apartment to find our 4-year-old cat Sara’s tail was broken – it was just dragging from the 4th joint below her butt.

The next morning, we took her to the Saskinbakkal Clinic nearby, next door to an amazing pet store where you can buy exotic animals from all over the world. Great place to go if you want to buy a pet toucan for around $3,000 (they had about a dozen), or just to hang out at a mini-zoo. Anyway, the vet x-rayed it and said it was dislocated, possibly from a strange fall from somewhere in our apartment (she loved to jump on and off of high places, get stuck behind hampers or TV sets, etc). He anesthetized her, giving her Rompin/Zilozine, pushed her tail back into place, and said we could take her home an hour later. She looked really out of it, but the doctor said she’d be drowsy for awhile. Well, a few hours later, she was completely nonresponsive on our floor. We called the doctor, who told us sometimes it takes longer and not to worry. An hour later we called our old vet in America who said this was very bad and to bring her somewhere else. The vet also said that Rompin is more often given to cows.

We brought her to the Anatolia Hayvan Hastanesi, who also said not to worry. We had to literally force them to take her temperature, which was 34.5C. Then they were worried. They put her on serums, cortizone, and antibiotics and I was hearing phrases like “if she makes it through the night.” Apparently she wasn’t metabolizing the downers as fast as she should (perhaps from somehow having small organs from being malnourished as a kitten on Heybeliada four years ago?); in addition, they said she’s anemic, which they only blood-test for when giving full anaesthesia. We stayed with her till midnight and left her there; at 2AM we called, and her temperature was up and she was more alert. The vet asked if we wanted to leave her at the hospital last night or take her home, and I said, sounding much like my father and without any particular charm, “I don’t care if she stays at former Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit’s place as long as the end result is that I wake up in the morning with a live cat.” At 8AM we picked her up and she looked like herself (but very groggy).

And then my cat returned to her normal self, jumping around, eating tuna, the usual. Except for one thing: by March 9, her tail was still crooked and swollen at the dislocation, and she cried when I touched it. So we took her into a different vet that was recommended, the Center Veterinary Clinic. They X-rayed her and shaved her tail at the dislocated area, gave us a cream to put on the tail, and then wrapped a gauze around it. The doctor told us to put a drop of cream on the tail at the spot once a day and to reapply the same gauze. We did what he said; the cat always ripped the gauze off with her teeth and groomed herself including the site, and seemed to suffer no ill effects; she was playful all week.

On the 13th at night was she not playful, and she laid down on the floor tile instead of the bed. We woke up on the 14th to find white vomit all over the house. We took her to the vet, and bloodwork showed that she had extremely high uric acid in the blood, no urine in the bladder, lots of feces in the large intestine: renal failure. (I do not like the word renal, as it always precedes failure.) I asked if it could have been caused by the cream, and the doctor said that it shouldn’t be a problem at that small dose; that the cat had been licking it and playing for a week with no evidence of problems during the week; and that it was probably organ damage from two weeks before when she was so cold for so many hours (at 34.5C) with low oxygenation of her organs from the anaesthetic. I called the vet who did the original anasthetic, who said it couldn’t be that, because she was fine for 10 days afterward, and said that the cat may have had internal problems anyway which made her overreact to the Rompin and that’s why she reacted so bad to the Naproxen, and that it was “just her time.” I paid $106 for the bloodwork, left my cat there, and went home to research what could have caused this.

At home, I looked up the cream on the web and found out that it’s Naproxen, a NSAID (non-steroidal anti-inflammitory drug) that is safe for humans (sold as Aleve in the US) but is highly toxic for cats; it causes gastric ulceration and hemorrhages, and kidney failure in cats. When I rushed back to the clinic with a printout of the information I had found on the Internet, he read it, said “Oh my God,” and then attempted the exact course of action recommended by the Naproxen Poisoning page in an attempt to save my cat. She died at 5PM. Elif buried her in her aunt Ilknur’s backyard.

We called the vet licensing board, who told us that there was nothing they could do. It turns out that a second veterinary opinion is illegal in Turkey as per Federal Law 6343 of 3/9/54 establishing the Licensing Board of the Turkish Veterinary Doctors Association. According to Section 29 (amended 3/4/84), “Any veterinarian who gives an opinion against another veterinarian, or participates in such an action as such, is eligible to be charged at the Association’s Disciplinary Committee.” So we called Sabah, a very large Turkish newspaper, who ran an article on the story. Then the veterinary review board, who blew us off before, now started calling the vets involved. One vet threatened to sue Elif, who told him she would be thrilled for him to speak with her mother the attorney and stepfather the judge, which made him scream and curse a lot on the phone before hanging up. Another doctor pretty much apologized. Elif’s mom is scared we might get hurt somehow by angry retaliatory vets, but after making Coup, I’m not afraid of the cat doctor mafia.

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Overcrowded courts

Bat Phone
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The economic crisis is really affecting the courts, and there’s a great shortage of judges, lawyers, even courtrooms. Elif’s stepfather Cos is working longer hours than an investment banker, because his caseload is so thick. I see him still working at 1AM, poring over cases with the television on in the background – he does around 80 a day. He enjoys it, but a lot of it is new to him; he’s always done labor law and now he’s doing a little of everything. Elif’s mother (an attorney) helps him when she finishes her own cases. Although they’re wired up with new technology – including a new computer, scanner, laser printer, and a cell phone whose ringer plays the Fenerbahce football team song – when they work on their cases, they still use manual typewriters and carbon paper.

We were visiting relatives yesterday when Cos’s Bat-phone went off, which means he has to go into work RIGHT NOW. So we all go in the car and go a great distance to the area near his court, which is in a terrible district of Istanbul, Avcilar, still not much repaired since the 1999 earthquake, apartment house after apartment house abandoned and bombed out.

We went up the stairs in the dark and got a cop to turn the lights on for us, and we waited for the prosecutor to arrive. The office has a leather backdrop behind the desk, with an Ataturk picture above it, everyone commenting on how nice this particular pose of Ataturk was. Cos turns on the boombox marked “INCREDIBLE SOUND” and drops in what appears to be his favorite tape – he has it memorized and sings along – “Hooked on Classics.” The prosecutor arrives, smoking a cigar, laughing about the cases to come. Cos tries on his black and green robe that looks masonic, and then we go downstairs. I go with Cos and turn on my microcassette recorder in case something interesting happens. Down a corridor past criminals and suspects awaiting their fate. I peeked in Cos’s courtroom, which looked like something out of the film “Brazil” – file cabinets piled seven rows high full of pink dossiers containing the details of every conceivable crime, lining 3 walls. In front of the judge’s desk, a manual typewriter and sheets of carbon paper. But Cos was to hear cases in a different office, not his courtroom, for his emergency duty calls for him to do the weekend pretrial cases – to decide whether there’s enough evidence to arrest the suspect, and to see whether the confessions made and signed were coerced. He dons a red robe for this task.

The first case was a group of gypsies who stole a wallet out of a woman’s backpack at a grocery store – he arrests one and frees the others.

Then came a group of car thieves, whom Cos had to question one at a time, and bring them in and out for each separate charge. Again, one got arrested, the others freed.

The first case we saw from the beginning was of a guy caught stealing a car, a TV, a computer, and cigarettes. The defendant is charged with more crimes; Cos reads from the police report. The defendant is asked if he agrees, to make sure his statement to the police wasn’t coerced. The defendant says that he was beaten. Each time the defendant says a word, Cos rephrases it as a long sentence, and a female stenographer types it as if it comes from the defendant. Apparently this is normal. Cos let him go; they don’t have enough evidence that he knew what was stolen. Cos calls in the next defendant for the same case, asking him about the charges one by one.

Defendant 2: “Three people went, Sinan broke the door of the house, I waited in the car, Serhan was on the driving seat. We were drunk. It was 3 AM. Sinan left the items in front of the door, and I carried them to the car. It was a stolen car, and once we lost the tire, and we abandoned it. Serhan and Sinan stole it. I quit stealing. I was drunk. I’ve got psychological problems. Serhan said, “Let’s go stealing, and I’ll give you money to pay to lessen your army service requirements.” They found another car. I saw them steal the car. I was scared. We also stole stuff from the second car. We left the stuff in Hasan’s house. They didn’t give me any money. I only helped, I didn’t physically do it. Ferit wasn’t there, like I said to the police. I’ve been clean for a year. The police coerced me into signing the confession. I didn’t do anything. They gave 80 million for me to sell it. I didn’t know it was stolen. Yes, the signature on the statement is mine, but I was coerced into signing.”

Cos: How could you open the locked car?

The defendant describes how to bend a car door. They took a joy ride and stole clothing, toys, and shoes from the car.

Defendant 2: I was waiting for them in a taxi while they stole the fourth car. When they told me they were going to snatch purses, I said I won’t come. (A couple of people have gotten killed in Turkey when their purses were snatched by people driving by them slowly in a car, and they were dragged to death.) But we together, went to steal the car. Let me go, I am going to the army. I beg you. I don’t know where the place is. I didn’t steal anything.

Cos has him arrested, as it turns out he’s also a fugitive; the defendant says it’s a case of mistaken identity.


Whatever Cos’s personal shortcomings, he’s a good judge on women’s issues. The next case is over child custody; a woman appears, along with a tall, thin man with a thin mustache, giving her filthy looks.

Cos: How old is the child?
Man: Four.
Cos: I don’t give custody to the man unless there’s a moral issue – if she’s doing something immoral. Now be careful what you say about moral things, because it’s your child’s mother and whatever you say here will be written forever, and the child may grow up and kill the mother – your words cause terrible things to happen and ruin lives, because it’s an honor society. You really want to give her money, enough to take care of herself and child, because she’s the mother of your child and you don’t want her to go to bad ways because she doesn’t have money, because her reputation, the mother of your child, is in your hands.
Man: She doesn’t have money or a job to take care of the child.
Cos: You can’t take the child because of that.

Cos gave them a time for the custody hearing, to which they would need to bring witnesses. When they both were leaving, the woman secretly passed Cos a note, without speaking. It read (with tons of spelling mistakes):

“Mr. Judge, I would love to say this to you face-to-face. But I can’t, or he will beat me to death. He is threatening me. In Bostanci I have a sister. I will stay with her, but he told me never to come to the European side. After getting a divorce, he won’t be able to tell me what to do. He told me last night that if I get a job in Istanbul, he will make great trouble for me. ‘I will kill you,’ he says. And he will give 50 million as a monthly alimony. Let him not give it, it’s better. If something happens to me, know that it’s from him. He has been using me (sexually) for a month and a half, saying we’ll get separated. From my home, he is not giving me anything (furniture/belongings). I am coming to your grand court for safety – I have nobody in the world. Sir Judge, my mother died, and my father got remarried. They don’t want me. My sister is a nurse. My father is telling my sister, don’t take her in because she’s going to destroy your comfort. What should I do?”


The next case is a couple around 50-60 years old getting divorced. Unlike America, judges and witnesses are expected to stick their noses into the case.

Cos: What’s wrong with you guys, you’ve been married for 30 years.
Man: Well, she’s causing me “pesevenk” (pimp). I’m a retired teacher. No one can call me that.
Cos: Don’t use language like that in my court – what kind of teacher are you?

A witness is called, who says that the couple never get along.

Cos, to witness: Have you ever tried to talk them out of a divorce and make the peace?

Cos has been seeing a lot of “fake divorce” cases lately. In Turkey, the marital unit is based more on economic practicalities; people get together because they’re of age, to have a legal child, and it’s often a bit of a business understanding: how can I find a parent for my child who won’t embarrass my family? The primary unit is vertical, and honor holds the greatest currency. Elif feels that feelings of love or of being “soulmates” aren’t necessary in Turkish society, and consequently, there’s less divorce because they’re more realistic about what to expect. Lately, however, in this economic crisis, there are more “fake” marriages (of an Anna Nicole Smith variety) and more “fake” divorces – people (Dilek has close friends who did this) who get divorced but stay together, to protect themselves from debtors.

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A tonsillectomy

I’ve been getting sick a lot lately, and every time, it seems to turn into a nasty throat infection where my tonsils swell up. I’ve had mono and strep and have been taking antibiotics every 2-3 months for my entire adult life, and enough already. I saw a doctor about it while I was living in upstate NY, but they were reticent to do anything about it, because of the cost and because adults recover slowly and painfully from tonsillectomies. But after getting sick in Antalya last month, I got a full exam, including having my sinuses inspected with a camera (which involved first having them anesthetized with a medicated foot-long Q-tip being jammed up them till I cried). The doctor was wonderful, explaining how my slightly-deviated septum on the left led to leakage causing innumerable ear infections on the right, and all the calcium there, and how the sinuses were OK to live with but my golf-ball sized trashcan tonsils really should come out as soon as I’m healthy.

Two weeks ago I went back to Elif’s mother’s best friend Mebruke, who owns a hospital, and her specialist held much admiration for my gargantuan puss-ridden tonsils, but he said they were now dangerously big, and he noticed that all the antibiotics I’d been on still had not eradicated the infection there. He put me on a regimen of more antibiotics and decongestants and antihistamines for a week and I was so knocked out from all these downers that I was looking forward to the operation, no matter how painful it would be. I decided to have it done at Mebruke’s hospital, which had modern equipment; Mebruke would even supervise the operation and people the night staff with doctors, not nurses, and would make the whole thing for next to nothing.

Last Monday was the tomography appointment next door to the hospital, which I was then to bring to my specialist (named Kemal) to see what else needed to be done with my face. Unfortunately, the tomography place had that Turkish relaxed way of doing business, meaning that they don’t take appointments and if something goes wrong, well, Maalesef (“it’s a shame; sorry.). That day their machines broke, and since we had an appointment with Kemal an hour later, we were out of luck; Elif gave them quite an earful (“How hard would it be to take down phone numbers in case something happens, you lazy…”), which embarrassed the people behind the counter in the waiting room and pleased me greatly.

We found another tomography place a couple of kilometers further into Europe, somewhere near Tehran. Burkas aren’t legal in Turkey but no one prosecutes them, especially in religious areas. While I have respect for the traditions of head-covering, I had no love for the women at the medical office, covered head to toe in black sheets, who would like nothing better than to have their children’s brains scanned with precious technology developed by the Great Satanic West which they wanted to send down into the fires of hell. I got my tomography done, chin-down on a pad, not moving for about 3 minutes while my nose dripped all over their pad, making a quick prayer to Allah that the next patient to lie on my boogers would be wearing a burka.

We brought the film to Kemal, who found the same deviated septum the Antalya specialist found last month, and showed me all details of what needed to be cut and why I’d gotten ear infections and had to use nasal sprays and had sinus problems and allergies and headaches, and that I had cysts and had to have my sinuses and nostrils scraped out, and he said he’d cut my Johnny Wadd-sized small tongue down to size so I could actually swallow food instead of quietly coughing for a half hour after every meal, and how it would all be done while I was under the same anesthesia as for the tonsillectomy, which he scheduled for Wednesday. I told my mother Tuesday night, not wanting to have to tell her after the fact (like I did after I was stabbed in Philadelphia); the conversation was strained (“I wished you’d waited till you were back in the States, but it looks like you’ve made up your mind…but I understand it needed to be done and hope it will go without a hitch…but I wish you’d waited…”)

On Wednesday, I got to the hospital at 8AM; Mebruke personally came and ordered lots of extra bloodwork to test clotting and all sorts of other special precautions for the American “eniste” (“brother-in-law”). Dilek canceled her court appearance to come. I came in I signed a waiver, with the person filling out the form, as always, writing Sila for Sheila and giggling at Marvin. I got back another form saying, “You will be in pain after the operation, and what’s more, you will swallow blood, and since your stomach cannot digest blood, you will vomit the blood, and that’s perfectly normal; sincerely yours, M. Kemal Ataturk.” Elif said that when I come out, the first thing I should think about is to breathe through my mouth as there’d be tampons in my nostrils, and that she loved me, and at 10 AM, I was wheeled into the elevator, just like ten years ago but in very different circumstances, and it all felt like a Disney ride, really. I cracked jokes as I always do in hospitals and found the operating room suitably-equipped although annoyingly bright. They gave me the shot and the anesthesiologist asked me some questions in English, to test my consciousness; I answered in Turkish; he asked again in English to show off his knowledge of English to the other doctors; I asked in Turkish about how long would it take till I was out cold; and he said, anywhere from 30 seconds to 2 minutes; and I said, oh; and the next thing I know I’m lying in my private hospital room, in a whole lot of pain. I mean, in the country of Pain. Not in the capital city of Cancer, but probably somewhere near the suburbs of Kidney Stones, and fully subject to the region’s laws, schedules, and customs.

I missed some good stuff while I was out cold. The operation lasted 2 full hours; there were lots of problems that weren’t on the tomography, and they sewed up my uvula in a nice fancy ribbon with cow intestine which my body would absorb. Everyone was quite happy, and they revived me to tell me how happy they were and how well it went. I responded by punching and kicking everyone in sight, just to show them how grateful I was. They had to give me a tranquillizer to keep their own faces from having to be operated on. I’m told that I gave an extensive declamation which resulted in Mebruke, who’s very religious, asking, does “fuck” mean “kahretsin”? (“damn”) and Elif said no it means “sikter.” Mebruke said she’s glad she doesn’t speak English. Even with the tranquillizer, I just wanted to be in a fetal position, but that wasn’t about to happen, and when I wasn’t saying fuck, I apparently moaned it hurts over and over. I remember nothing from the first hour, not even the cartilage pieces they brought to show me per my request.

I had to stay the night; despite Ataturk’s message, I was barfing more than anyone wanted (especially me). I’d lay in agony, and then get a cold sweat, and sit up suddenly, which would make my blood pressure drop more than anyone felt happy about, and barf repeatedly and only a small hunk of throat and blood would come up, and then I’d sleep for another hour and repeat. I panicked during my third barfing, saying it was enough barfing already and that despite what Ataturk said I was not all right, but all the doctors-not-nurses checked my pulse and the machines and said it was all right, and they gave me some nice oxygen to make me believe the same, and Elif talked me through it and it was indeed all right, but Mebruke, who was supposed to then have her one day off in like a year, decided at 3AM to drive back to the hospital and supervise, and she analyzed the blood work and gave me a little blood thickener and I stopped barfing, and now that’s service you don’t see every day!

So Dilek and Mebruke and Elif sat up all night and Dilek worked on her court cases (she brought her typewriter and used the hospital as an office on Thursday) and they talked philosophy while I slept and moaned and barfed, and Mebruke talked about seeing people die and souls leaving their bodies, and Elif, my lovely hardline verificationist, would have none of it, and Mebruke’s husband showed up in the middle of the night to bring flowers for me and to fight with Mebruke about the state of their marriage and how fat Mebruke is and how they haven’t slept together in 15 years.

Friends and family and clients called all night – that is, friends and family and clients of Dilek. Cos cried because my parents hadn’t called, and most of all the doctors were looking very sad about my annemler, which means parents but translates as mothers (as if the Turks had acquired a strange understanding of the Jewish-family marital relation). Everybody asked Elif if my family was aware of the operation or if they were angry at me, and she couldn’t explain that one could never know, that it could be because I downplayed the operation to them to allay their worries. My parents were champs this time in the weeks up to us moving, and dealt with my accountant and bills – even though they’ve made it plain that they’re not thrilled with me being here or approve of my having surgery here. And everyone who’d been to America agreed how wonderful the Marvins are (they didn’t say annemler because Marvins sounded a whole lot cooler). But however much I downplay it, but there are irreconcilable cultural differences, from a country like Turkey where the hosts iron your underwear and let you sleep in the master bedroom, to America, where suffering and death are sometimes viewed as annoyances and you put your elders in old age homes (if they don’t put themselves there first) and you send Russell Stovers candies to their nurses so they won’t let your loved ones get bedsores. And even if Elif could say any of this, they would never understand it, because the doctors thought that just maybe the Land of the Marvins might have let 9/11 happen to their own people if it could give them cause to take even more charge of world affairs, and what a strange place their patient was from, the hospital owner’s friend’s daughter’s husband for whom they were staying up all night.

But Elif and I were more concerned with the pieces of throat that were coming up every hour, and what I really wanted was morphine which is the best thing of all. And Mehmet came to my room when I wanted to pee and brought the pee jug and I am never good at peeing in bed and I insisted on standing, so Mehmet held my right side and Elif held my left and Fatma held my wrist to check my blood pressure. And no, I did not need Mehmet hold my dick, no, I’m not forcing the pee out, just give me a minute, could you please look that way, I won’t fall, only one other person gets to hold my dick and that person is not named Mehmet.

And sometime on Thursday they let me out after walking me around and giving me an intermuscular injection in my right buttcheek, and I went home in a taxicab, and Sumru stayed with us for two more days mostly to get away from Bilgin, which meant I got to hear the dulcet hyenic tones of Sumru’s vocal cords for two more days, but she was so helpful. And I called my dad when I got home, and when Dilek and Cos came the next day, he called, and Cos was the happiest of all because his children didn’t call him on the religious festival and didn’t come to his wedding and it is wonderful to have a family as great as mine.

Just like the barfing, which came as advertised, so came the post-op pain, 2 weeks of the worst sore throat you’ve ever had in your life, and I’m only into my fifth day of it. I can’t eat a damned thing without having to lie down for 10 minutes and count backwards from 100 again and again to take my mind off the pain, and I can eat baby food and milk and pureed vegetables and that’s about all. Every two hours I swallow one of four different baby syrups, an antibiotic and three types of painkillers, and that’s 24 hours a day, because after two hours of sleeping I’m sitting awake catching the next pain-train from hurtsburgh painsyllvania, swallowing two teaspoonfuls of some drinkme and wanting to drive the Turkish manufacturers of baby Ibuprofen syrup to Painville’s capital city myself, because what kind of sick bastard would flavor a painkiller Tangy Orange?

Friday I went back in to have the tampons taken out of my nose, which they would only do after another buttcheek muscular injection and then waiting an hour, which should have told me something. It felt as if they were pulling a cottonball, followed by a gauze pad, the New York Times, the shredded Enron documents, and finally my eyeballs, out from one nostril at a time.

I spent the weekend was spent reading and not eating because as Buddah said under the lotus tree, eating is suffering. Today Bilgin, who’s had two strokes but it only seems like four, drove me to Europe, which was like being driven by the dying old grandfather in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. This time the doctor examined my ears and liked what he saw; he stuck a Hoover vacuum all the way down each of my nostrils to suck up dried blood and meat, and then he gently shoved a coathanger covered with cortisone and medicine up each one, knowing he hit paydirt when the tears involuntarily started streaming. He seemed happy with my nose’s progress, and then he looked at my throat and was happy at his work but not at my body’s, so he put me on more medication so I’d be able to eat and get well, including twice-daily buttcheek intermuscular injections to be had before bed at any pharmacist nearby my house, and that I should come back on Thursday for more vacuuming and coathangering, selam, selam. Back in Asia I talked to Sumru and Bilgin, who drove me back and stayed for tea, and we talked forever, until I had to go out for the injection, which I didn’t mind at all, and I arrived at the pharmacist and it turned out they had to get a licensed nurse to do it, and they called up a Mehmet who shows up a couple of minutes later and he says he’d come to our house and do it for the next 3 days, which the doctor recommended, for only 75 cents a visit, which sounded fine with me until I found that his injection was s-l-o-w and deep, unlike than the sadfaced Fatma who assists Kemal back in Europe, and now my throat feels great and I had a big soft babyfood dinner but I can’t move my leg and my ass is killing me, so maybe I’ll go an additional block to a different pharmacy tomorrow and waive the housecalls.

Despite my gory descriptions, I see people in the hospital when I go there who are coming in on ambulances from car accidents, and the old woman on the first floor in my apartment who moans that she can’t even die, and I realize that even this is not bad, that I am very lucky with my body and to have all these very different people none of whom I can relate to, speaking a different language and believing weird nonsensical creationist myths, but all of whom are in some way watching out for me – Kemal and Mebruke and Elif’s family and my family and religious people people who eat Wonder Bread and people who eat pide – all making it so I will not to have to go to the hospital anymore.

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Peter Lorre
Peter Lorre (Image via

In the absence of public services or a court system that can provide adequate restitution, people often find that the best way to solve problems is to directly take matters into their own hands. Right now, on TV they’re showing a woman who was trying to jump off the bridge over the Bosphoros and kill herself. She didn’t succeed. Nobody called the fire department or tried to talk her down; instead, a few brave men climbed the treacherous steep railing and forcibly dragged her down. People here are willing, even expected, to get involved. Last month, when we were walking in Istanbul coming back from a movie, Elif saw that a cab driver didn’t stop for a woman who was trying to hail it; almost instantly, a group of men surrounded the cab, opened the door for her, and forced the driver to take her. My favorite example of instant civic action happened when we visited Elif’s father in Antalya this summer. It was 110 degrees outside, so we went to Aqualand, a Turkish waterslide park. We were in the wave pool, and a woman nearby mentioned that a middle-aged man had just brushed against her and rubbed his dick on her. Then Elif’s stepmother said her ass was grabbed, and we saw the same guy swimming away. We watched him – it was hard because of the waves – and then, sure enough, we saw him grab two women. So Elif, naturally, swims up to him and splashes water in her face and screams, “You pervert, what’s wrong with you, grabbing all the women in the pool?” And the guy says, “I didn’t do anything” but he’s leaving the pool now, and as he’s exiting it, some strapping Turkish lads on the side of the pool were heading for the spot he was exiting from, and the last I was able to see of him, he was being followed, and I imagined that he was about to suffer the same fate that Peter Lorre’s child molester character would face when surrounded by the street gangsters at the end of the movie M.

Sometimes a situation will arise and you can find an authority, but getting them to do something isn’t always easy. Yesterday we got off the boat to Bostanci to visit Elif’s aunt Sumru; we wanted to take the taxi because the weather was lousy, but the taxi driver by the boat refused to take us there. Sumru’s apartment, though, wasn’t far enough away, so the cab driver felt he wouldn’t make enough money on the fare. (This is a problem people often run into here with cabs – unlike New York, where they want short, quick, frequent, white fares, here everything’s so spread out that the cab drivers wait to make the big killing.) When he refused to take us, we wrote down his license plate and said we’d tell the cops. He rolled his eyes and said, when you find them, tell them Selam Soyle from me. (Give them a nice big hello.) So, after fighting with the cab driver awhile, we went to a cop and told him. And just like the cabbie predicted, the cop told us, “Yeah, we hear stories of that all the time, but what can we do? There’s not enough cops, and I have to work on my post here on this street, I can’t monitor that street over there where he’s on.” Elif started to walk away, and I did too, but then I turned and said to the cop, “That’s what the cabbie told me, that you’d do nothing, and he also told me to give you a big Selam Soyle from him.” This changed the cop’s mood entirely. He turned red, grabbed a walkie talkie, summoned over another cop to take his place, wrote down the cabbie’s license plate, and stormed off towards the cabbie, to either yell at him, throw him in prison and rape him, or take another bribe from him – any scenario of which would be perfectly fine by me.

We’ve gotten used to having to sometimes engage in mild confrontation when going out in public, and you just dial up your stress tolerance after awhile. Last month we went to see the Whirling Dirvishes in their real monastery in Taksim.  (The annual event in Konya is supposed to be a circus.)  Their temple was miniscule, and they support themselves by charging $8 admission to watch them pray and twirl.  The floor is a square and it was surrounded by a few rows of seats, and the festivities (?) were preceded by a Sufi music concert.  All of the attendees were foreigners, and the organizers were Turkish.  Although movies here have assigned, numbered seating, this event, which really needed it, did not.  So when they let the tourists in, there was a mad musical-chairs rush for seats, and everyone started fighting with each other.  We were first in line, because we showed up an hour early, and we ran in and found ourselves at the first row of seats (there were three rows) and the chairs were folded over and had a scarf tied around them.  Everyone sat their butts right into the seats behind us, so we simply uprighted the chairs, took the scarf off them, and sat down.  About 10 minutes later a British woman came over and started yelling at us, didn’t you see the chairs were reserved?  I said, no, but I did find a nice scarf lying here.  She said those are my seats.  I said I was sure that they were, and that as a special favor to her, I would protect them for her for the next two hours.  She said, I’m a Mevlevi, I’m part of the religious order, and I’ve reserved those seats for my guests.  And what I said next straight out of the Marv Felsen textbook (How to Win Enemies and Alienate People):  “The man at the ticket office told me when I gave him my money that I was a guest!  Elif, are you a guest?”  Elif confirmed that she was.  “Dilek, are you a guest?”  By the time I got around to asking random people nearby if they felt like guests, the woman, British, stuck her nose in the air and said, “I learned that the best way to learn manners is from the unmannered.” And she turned around and left.  Elif completely misinterpreted this as an attack on her nationalism and yelled, “What country are you from, honey?”  Elif said that it was typical, but somehow always surprising, that all the Mevlevis twirling turned out to be foreigners, having come to Turkey and staying here to practice an exotic, antique religious order which has become locally virtually obsolete.  None of the Mevlevis were Turkish.  The show was what you’d expect – sleepy music, lots of twirling, with great costumes – but right in front of us, one girl twirler, about 16 years old, started turning red, and then redder, and then looked like her head was going to explode.  The other dozen or so twirlers were happily off in la-la land while she started tottering, looking like a dreydl that’s about to come to a stop.  I called out “Dur” to her (stop) but she couldn’t see anything but a blur, of course, and after that portion of the ceremony ended, she went to the side, put on a black robe over her purple outfit, and sat the rest of the performance out.  I was glad that she had the sense to do so.

Although the combination of impromptu civic action and Mediterranean hot bloodedness can lead to anything from fisticuffs to a vicious cycle of honor killings, it’s so common for somebody to briefly interrupt your day with rude communication, that people usually don’t take it too personally. For example, you get in your car and drive somewhere. The light turns green, and you’re about to step on the gas, while clearly you should have plowed through the intersection ten seconds ago when the light was still red. The twelve cars behind you sit on their horns. Now in America, that might mean, “Wake up, asshole, move it!” but here, they hit their horns when the light turns green, just as people in other countries might use their turn signal when they change lanes (not in Turkey). Or let’s say you’re on a Turkish highway and hear a car honk. Who knows what it means? “I’m passing you.” “You can pass me.” “You have nice breasts.” “My name is Mehmet. What’s yours? Mehmet? How nice!” “We’re about to hit a flock of sheep. Hey, that one looks cute!” But in America, a car horn on the highway may mean, “I know what you’re thinking. ‘Did he fire six shots or only five?’…You’ve got to ask yourself a question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?”

Life without public services

Last month, when I was talking with Izzy in the hospital during Elif’s uncle Bilgin’s angioplasty operation, at one point he turned to me, his face serious, and said, “You can travel the world, live all over, it’s great, but don’t keep living here. Turkey is in deep, deep shit. You know that.” He said that the religious party will win in the February elections, that there’ll be another army coup, that inflation would only get worse, that there were basically no human rights and services. He’s right of course, but being rich here, living in Suadiye, really has its advantages. In America, I had no health care, and here it’s a snap for me to afford great medical treatment. I got bronchitis, and they gave me drugs and I paid around $10. I’ve been getting everything done I could never take care of in the states – moles on back and leg removed; got creams for my chronic dermatitis around my nose. I asked him how much he was spending at the hospital, and he whistled. “You wouldn’t believe it. I know it’s intensive care and they’re watching him round the clock, but last year we were in here also and it came to over 500 million lira a day, totalling seven thousand dollars for the two weeks.” I told him about my surgery in 1990, how I was in the hospital for a day and how my bill was eleven thousand, and he categorically refused to believe it. “No, you must have gotten that wrong,” he said.

But no matter what your financial status, in a country with a breakdown in services, all sorts of cool things can happen. Last night we took the boat to Dilek’s house and there was a mutiny. The boat was absolutely packed with people, and when it stopped at Burgazada, a very small island, which it only goes to two or three times a day, the announcement came on the loudspeaker, “Next stop, Kadikoy!” This meant that the boat that we were on, carrying hundreds of people to Bostanci, where Dilek lives, was going to bypass it altogether. Perhaps the captain was misinformed, perhaps he wanted to go home to his wife and kids. But a hundred people on the boat got together and held up schedules to show that the boat was supposed to go to Bostanci. A few tourists were on the boat, very confused. People were all very friendly, but the captain got on the loudspeaker again to confirm it: “Direct boat to Kadikoy.” But at some point, several people went to the captain, and convinced him that he was outvoted a hundred to one, and the captain decided that it would be best to take us to Bostanci. (I should also mention that there was a monkey on the boat. He was on a very long, loose leash, and spent the trip attacking every single passenger in the vicinity. I watched them move to another seat, one by one, and the monkey’s owner, a Russian woman, giggled each time it happened.)

Everything here is contingency planning and bricolage. For example, say you’re working on a construction site and your buddy gets buried in a dirt-slide. You can’t call “911” (here, “110”) because it’ll take hours for help to come, and you know that the human brain can only survive without oxygen for about 5 minutes. (Sixty if you’re watching Baywatch.) What do you do? You jump in a Caterpillar tractor and dig him out! I just saw it happen on TV. It was pretty exciting when the big machine came up with paydirt, in the form of the buried man’s head, although the driver looked pretty upset at having decapitated his friend. OK, here’s another one: say you’re riding in an elevator, and it hasn’t been inspected, well, ever, and it plunges you five stories to your death. What’s the quickest way to the morgue? Hours pass. The ambulance doesn’t come. Not to worry – someone on the block will personally drive your carcass to the hospital themselves – people here are really nice. OK, let’s suppose you’re a 16-year-old girl and the hospital tells you you have bone cancer and they amputate your leg, and then they say oops, you never had bone cancer! You can sue, and if you have a good lawyer, you may win 10 grand! Hopa! OK, now let’s say you’re on the street and you have no legs, just stumps at the knees. Now you can’t afford a wheelchair, and sitting on a cardboard mat like in America won’t do – in Istanbul you’ve got to get around, to move, move, move! Your best bet would be to do as the locals do – tie pieces of rubber tire to your stumps, and you’re off! OK, now suppose you’re a leper and can’t play accordion very well for money because your fingers are falling off. Well, on second thought…


Elif’s uncle Bilgin went for angioplasty. Bilgin’s already had open-heart surgery several years ago, and he wasn’t too happy to find out that he needed this surgery, but he was extremely lucky: not that the surgery was routine, but in the nature of his complaint – because if he had almost any other life-threatening illness, he, being dirt-poor, would have ended up in the government’s public hospital, which is quite squalorous. The only machines for his type of problem are at the private American Hospital, so the government had to send him there – and it’s clean, quiet, and modern.

When he was admitted, they held him for three hours for some tests before the surgery, and we were allowed to stay with him. There was another man in the room with him, in his 50’s, who was having chest pains and who had also once been through a painful open-heart surgery. He and his family were miserable, and I cheered them up by playing the game of “Let’s compare chest wounds” – I came in last with my lone stab wound, but it was all great fun – Bilgin had three wounds, and the guy had a really impressive zipper scar. Turns out he used to weigh 130 kilograms and he’s about my height! Then the doctor came in and gave his family the news that this time the man’s arteries were clogged in five places and lots of painful surgery and an extended hospital stay would be needed. They all broke out crying and the clowning was over. I left the room, quietly.

Bilgin’s surgery lasted about an hour, and while we waited outside for the operation, we met a guy named Izzy (really Izzet), dressed in black from head to toe, around my age. His sister’s a fashion designer queen (her husband is Turkey’s version of Howard Stern) and she was all decked out in her own designs – godawful black leather pants, half-meter-high black plastic boots – you get the idea. Izzy helps run his father’s textiles business, which has branches in a half-dozen European countries. They were at the hospital for two weeks for their father’s health problems – his father’s been bedridden for three years and his lungs are failing. Izzy looked completely drained and had only gone home a couple of times during the period to shower. But he perked up at hearing me ask Elif in English what a word in the Turkish newspaper meant, and we spent the day talking about movies, Turkey, and Judaism (he’s Sephardic).

Izzy has strongly ambivalent feelings about his father – Izzy’s sister told Sumru that the two are inseparable and that he’s crazy, absolutely crazy about his dad. But to Elif and I he showed a great deal of anger at his father for his illness, which he says was self-inflicted (by stress and smoking). Elif offered up the comment that without his stress and smoking he wouldn’t have been him, wouldn’t have started or ran the business, and that this was his life, but Izzy would have none of it, saying that even though you can’t live forever, spending your last ten years being a horrible burden on your family is incredibly selfish.

Izzy tells me some interesting things about Turkish Jews. First, they don’t intermarry. And second, the father of the bride has to pay a dowry to the groom’s family (exactly the opposite of the Moslem tradition here) where he has to cough up tens of thousands of dollars, a job, a car, whatever the groom’s family wants to get him to marry her. (Finally: just compensation for living with a woman.) Another reason Izzy’s father has such health problems – Izzy’s sister just got married and her father, being famously wealthy, had to cough it up, baby!

Izzy also talked about the OJ Simpson trial and about there being a day of reckoning where it would all be straightened out. I talked about the fruitful results of Jewish apocalyptic eschatology (the Barcuchba revolt; the Essine Cave of Horrors), about the film Crimes and Misdemeanors, about Baptist presidents going to bed with El Salvadorian butchers, about heroic current leaders eviscerating welfare, about an interview I just read with an unrepentant, wealthy doctor of Auschwitz named Munch (who wrote a book about how he was satisfied doing his job of testing diseases on Jews and sending them to the chambers, and how Jews today are dick-sucking pigs cornering the world’s resources, and how happy and healthy he feels being an 87-year-old author). I’m equivocal about many things, but not about the existence of earth’s moral center.

Izzy shocked me when we talked about my favorite show, Baywatch (he didn’t understand why it was the world’s most-watched show), and he said, “Why are the women in the show always running? It’s like they’re afraid of being chased by niggers or something!” I told him that the word was generally considered unacceptable, and about its role in the OJ trial, but I didn’t want to bug him too much about his being a racist, with his father was dying in the other room.

Elif’s aunt Sumru was blown away that I was talking with Izzy, because she recognized him and his sister from the newspapers, and Sumru was asking me if I’ve heard of his family, and do I know how impossibly rich and famous they are, etc. – all while her own husband’s being cut open. (Even Izzy was into the name game: we went downstairs to drink tea while his own father was in intensive care, and we passed the owner of the hospital’s sister; Izzy went on and on about how incredibly rich and famous she was, being a member of the Koc family, and owning half of Turkey, etc. etc.) What I found most impressive is how much information about my family Sumru had stashed in that noggin of hers – in one breath, she mentioned Penn, Wharton, Sikorsky, music business, mechanical engineer, Connecticut. What a memory! What powerful symbols! What currency!