On breaking out of my comfort zone in Istanbul
Elspeth Slayter is an Associate Professor in the School of Social Work at Salem State University. Through her marriage to a Turkish American, she launched into the process of language learning and acculturation. Learning conversational Turkish is a requirement for obtaining Turkish citizenship – but also affords greater access to the experience of Turkish culture. The following is a creative response that she wrote to visiting Istanbul.
Just the bare bones of the call to prayer trickle through the earthquake-proof wall. Everyone is off at work. I have the key to the apartment, I can leave if I want to. The outside taxi cacophony chills my skin with its whirs and whizzes. I contemplate my self-imposed confinement here in Istanbul. My fingers and toes touch the leaded window over the neighborhood; the coursing warmth of the city just at the bottom of the hill.
I’m in the mood for some baklava-like savory cheese-filled börek, why not step out for some? Stinging doubts swarm me as soon as the thought is out. My husband’s fear, my brother-in-law’s fear and my father’s fear merge into the idea of me, walking alone, in Istanbul. “I’m an experienced traveler – What’s the matter with me?” My fear’s zenith propels my turn away from the window, to the door. I’m going to do it.
I am already circumnavigating the curling stairs to the street. My throat constricts in exhaust-fume chilled garage. I swallow the thickening mucus of fear. Once outside, I squint in the golden warmth, locating my New York street-crossing skills while dodging cars. Blood pounds hypertense in my ears. Sunshine softens my goosebumps. I target the mall below, across the boulevard.
Entering the mall, it’s a familiar drill. Place the bag on the magnetometer. Greet the attendant with “Iyi Günler.” Walk on. My heart rusts as the smiling, familiar attendant greets me with more than the usual pleasantries. This guard with the modern lavender-patterned hijab recognizes me. Blushing, I muster “sorry, don’t understand!” in my nascent Turkish. She rubs my shoulder knowingly, waives me on with a smile. The fear in my mind’s eye is distracted. I am known here.
Cupping my lira in my pocket, I head for the börekci. I am so focused on practicing my food order in mental loops, that I overshoot the entrance. I walk around the block again for a second try. I try on an ‘I-belong-here’ swagger at entry. Grinning nervously, my Turkish is quickly answered in English. I slink to the farthest table. Spooning slow, deliberate portions of hot, buttery börek into my mouth, a few unadulterated moments of normalcy emerge from the noodles, maybe even some joy.
Perhaps I should walk to the park around the mosque? Lots of women sit there with their kids. Isn’t the language of women and children universal? This is a modern city – this is not Tehran or Baghdad. I don’t have to veil. I’m dressed more conservatively than my Turkish niece who left the house in a micro-mini this morning. I shouldn’t be fearful as a woman. Why is it so hard to just go out?
My legs ache with shin splints as I find myself negotiating the steep hill to the park. Children are giggling and cavorting in the distance. Traversing the park, I smile at the mothers and children, but I am unnoticed. All the park benches are filled. I cross the street in an arc towards home. Maybe tomorrow, I promise myself. My brain is an odd mix of puffed up peacock at my success and plummeting pigeon careening down the hill at my continued fear. The steel door secures me in again. I deflate, shivering in the cold air conditioning. At least I got out today!