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?”