Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Notes from the edge

This has been, as my flat-mate (and dear friend) Emily would say, a rather "rough Istanbul week".
Maybe it's the incessant heat, the constant sticky feeling on my shoulders, the dizzying hot air just finally getting on my frazzled sunburnt nerves. Maybe it's the post Ramadan blues - also known as the week that every black niqab-ed Saudi Arabian woman and her 5 children come to Istanbul to celebrate and stroll Istiklal Street with their unfairly attired jeans-and-t-shirt-wearing husbands; I observed such a scene yesterday at the Starbucks, and couldn't help but gaze at the woman taking sips of her Frappuccino (they do have to lift the veil to do this, and it's definitely not polite to sneak a peek, but Istanbul is a place where ones manners sort of take a walk out the back door after your first month of living here). Maybe it's working with children every day and the subsequent exhaustion or maybe it's the bottle kids on my street who like to burn things and shoot toy guns. Maybe it's money being tight because people do not like to keep up with their English lessons during Ramadan. Maybe it's post traumatic stress from seeing that goat get his head cut off onto the dirty sidewalk. Maybe I've just been in the middle east too long and am losing patience trying to be politically correct and tolerant of every subtle and not-so-subtle misogynistic comment and situation that I observe and endure 

The Dog days in Tarlabasi take on a whole new meaning when the place is over-run with motley looking street dogs; their fur that indecipherable shade of smoky beige that Orhan Pamuk wrote was in itself the essence of Huzun (the melancholia of Istanbul). Not to be outdone, it is worth mentioning the other canines with their tongue hanging out; Istanbul's infamous creepy men whose demeanor could only politely be called similar to that of a dogs - and a particularly unrefined street mutts, at that. 

It is rather convenient that of the rudimentary Turkish that I have learned thus far, simple words used often in teaching at my preschool job ("Otur" = Sit, "Yapma" = don't do that, and "Kopek" = dog), are also useful and applicable when confronted by the aformentioned rude males. I do not wish to generalize or give a sweeping misconception of Turkey, as I know several very decent, honest and respectful Turkish men -but they are not the type to be found sitting on my ghettos street corners smoking and drinking tea all day long, loitering in front of Beyoglus hammams and shops, or cruising the tourist areas on saturday nights, which, realistically are the places where I do tend to spend the majority of my time. I am not a misandrist or man hater - just someone who attempts to paint an honest portrait.

I live in a low-income area where men simply are not used to seeing free and uncovered women (except the few English Teacher foreigners who live here for the cheap rent, "authentic atmosphere" and quality produce markets), so perhaps to some extent the continual stares are understandable; even a pagan gypsy covers her head with a scarf, after all. I might be persuaded to make this concession myself (I do have quite the scarf collection after all), but it is simply too damn hot outside, and when I pound the pavement at 8 am walking to work, I cannot be bothered to wear anything besides my short shorts and tanktops. More irritating are the general creeps lurking on Istiklal every other evening, who certainly give the appearance of being somewhat more westernized (given the way modern Turkish women dress and their own diesel jeans and sneakers), yet are likely to give themselves a severe case of whiplash due to repeated neck over-extensions to catch a glimpse of every and any skin-showing passing female.

Maybe it's just the chaos and crowds; I myself am living in a 3 bedroom apartment with 4 recent Syrian refugees (and my marvelous fellow Canadian Emily, though she will be tragically leaving at the end of the month to recluse herself in Osmanbey in her own private apartment - just kidding. I'm jealous.). It would be entirely inappropriate to complain about the fact that the bedroom next to me now holds twice as many men as when I first moved in (that's 4 men, in case I didnt mention that), given the fact they are escaping Civil War in their country and I am merely irritated at the kitchen constantly being occupied, or the additional fact that they insist upon cooking liver every other day. How they all manage to sleep in one small room is astounding, and of course I ought not to complain because they are considerate and decent guys. I really ought not to complain. I am not. Complaining.

Istanbul is beautiful, Istanbul is the still the world's greatest city; these are things I tell myself when nearing the precarious un-fenced edge of some sort of nervous breakdown. Even though much of my love for Istanbul is in the bricks and old buildings and abandoned alleys and wooden houses about to slip away into dust; in the street cats who sleep in between second hand flea-market finery on the sidewalk near my house; in the fact that even when a gross man stares at me, I find myself endeared by the fact he can barely fit on the tiny stool beneath him, or the fact his mustache looks like that of an Ottoman Janissary. My love for Istanbul is not so much about the reality of day-to-day living here, but in the magical little tiny blink-and-you'll-miss-them threads that tie the past and the present together in a web of confusion and artistically gratifying chaos. This is a city of ruins, of little artifacts of its former glory found amongst the trash heap, and even though reality can be ugly at times, I am, for better or worse, someone who lives more by romantic ideals, charmed illusions and artistic inspiration, than I do by any sense of practicality.

I have made the joke that perhaps I am entirely out of touch and that one day I'm going to slip completely over the edge and be found down in Eminonu's seedy docks and backstreets, laying on the cobble stones, sheesha waterpipe in hand, wearing a Turban and genie pants yelling loudly, "God bless Constantinople!!" 
Despite that humourous image, for now I am writing this post in an attempt to exorcize the demons of frustration, (rather than jump over that edge), and find black humour in what HAS indeed been a "rough Istanbul week". 

The Waterpipe is always a good idea though. 

One of many, in my Istanbul cartoon series