In the morning of our second-to-last day in Istanbul, we take the boat in the morning and walk to the Egyptian Spice Bazaar. An 8-year-old is marching in a white hat and white cape and white shoes, surrounded by his adoring family. I discover that he is going to get circumcised. Men and boys are fishing in the Bosphorus by dropping string off the bridge. People surround us, trying to sell us things. One guy asks: “Where a you from?” Elif cooly answers, “Konya,” the name of one of Turkey’s more conservative towns. She is positively enchanting; I eye her posterior as she is dancing around in her skirt, carrying her pocketbook.
Inside the Grand Bazaar, sellers stand at the edge of their stalls among walls of ceramics saying “Yes, please,” or “Speak English? Speak German? Speak Swahili?” One sign read: “Let me help you spend your money.” In the old section, we find a store with a lovely late-Ottoman ring of pink gold and a rather scuffed diamond. It’s about $150, which is more than my frugal girlfriend likes to spend. I think that it’s lovely and buy it with the last of my money.
We head home, and on the boat, on the Bosphorus dividing two continents, with an antique ring and an ideal setting, without knee-bending or prepared speeches, without my having planned any of it, it just seems the perfect moment to affirm what the fortune-teller Firdevs and the spent coffee grounds revealed would be the case. We are engaged to be married.
When we arrived at Dilek’s apartment, we told her the news, showing her the ring as she was washing dishes. It took her a few minutes for her to understand what we were saying. I then called my parents on the phone, who responded by promptly accusing me of lying to them: for no particular reason, they had it in their mind that we’d eloped and were already married. Firdevs must have been right about their worrying. I assured my mother that the wedding would be held near our home in New York, that we were coming home soon, and that I still loved them even though they were completely insane.
We went out that night with Elif’s whole family, to a restaurant owned by Dursun, a friend of Dilek’s who had a career singing Turkish classical music in the 1970’s but whose star had long since faded. Now he was singing in his own restaurant, with rotted teeth and the worst toupee to ever sit on a human head. He started with a song whose lyrics were apropos to him – “Strangers took her away, my life’s spring turned into winter and ended.” He then went into a typically cheerful little Turkish number called “What a Love This Is, What a Pain.” Another song had lyrics like “Open your arms, hug me, I am cold, I am cold, I can’t cover myself,” which everyone sang and my new fiancé enacted with body movements, hugging herself, rubbing her arms as if cold.
Whenever a song got over forty beats per minute, I was forced to “shikidi shikidi,” or bellydance – or at least, at the table, to snap my fingers with my arms out, shaking my chest, wiggling, and grinning like an idiot for hours on end, while her aunts clapped rhythmically, perfectly vacant. My role is to entertain and to show that I am entertained, or at least to prove that I’m willing to show that I am entertained when I am not entertained, that I am the American grooving on their vibe, that I’m not an uptight American, but I want it to be over. All night I keep hearing people say that I’m so relaxed for an American, how they expected me to be much taller and blonder, how they expected me to be condescending to them and, above all, how happy they were that I wasn’t Christian, because while I, as a Jew, hadn’t yet accepted the idea of Mohammed as a prophet, at least I didn’t have these weird ideas of God as a trinity.
I know by now that the dessert, the cheese-filled “shredded wheat” of Kadayif, is not the end of the meal. I want Dursun to die. We’re practically the only people at his restaurant, he has a whole band behind him, waiters walk around nervously trying to serve us and the two other tables of people there, but this guy in the 70’s jacket with bad teeth and a worse rug is performing as if onstage at Madison Square Garden, and he will not stop. And until he does, I will be forced to snap my fingers and wiggle my arms, knowing I look spastic, as if I had epilepsy, wiggling there in my green Philadelphia Orchestra T-shirt. As he goes into Arabesque, I am reflected in the windows outside, thinking, you look like an idiot, Brian.
But then I catch a glimpse of Elif next to me, and turn and see that she too is forced to endure this ordeal, and she translates the new song’s lyrics as “May a drop of wine be in my future that I will drink from my lover’s hand,” and I know that we will have a great and long life together, away from bad music, away from the convergence of the centuries and the cacophonous noise and the chaos, and hopefully, in Firdevs’ land, in a wooded place where birds would be dropping money on our heads.