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tearing the rag off the bush again
Winter in Istanbul, 1996 PDF E-mail

The men she met on the streets said the Turks were upset. It was the whole tulip thing. Tulips are from Turkey, not Holland. Or at least, they are not native to Holland. The Turks said this on the streets of Istanbul. People should know. The Dutch stole the tulips.

During the earliest morning prayer song, the streets were impeccably clean. They were clean before the first moments of street vendors selling roasted chestnuts and gyros, before the young boys ran pots of apple tea to the rug merchants who were themselves preparing to entertain potential carpet buyers, often Western European tourists. English and German and French were frequently spoken on the streets. "Bonjour Madam" a young man said as she walked through the Egyptian spice bazaar, and though her French skills were minimal, she offered a quiet "Bonjour Monsieur" as she walked toward the main bazaar where the man who sold scarves waited for her.

Erol was not her lover though she contemplated the possibilities of her life if she were to choose to stay with him. It was hard to imagine. "I'd give fifteen camels for you to marry me," he joked the day they met. He pulled a small black cell phone from his jacket pocket and said, "Yes, we will call your father now." Yet, when she looked to the streets, she saw the only women her age were foreigners. She laughed, yet thought he was quite handsome. He was not tall but his skin was a golden brown that matched his hair. She stayed to help him drape silk scarves in the display window. Afterwards, they exchanged the winter scarves that they wore around their necks that day. His was a hand-woven white wool scarf with fringe and blue edging. The fabric was thick and the weave could easily be examined. She wondered how quickly calloused fingers could work the loom to produce a scarf such as this. Her scarf was a store-bought plaid scarf that meant nothing to her. For her, it was a guilty exchange.

In those early months of winter, the Chechens took hostages from the ships that had left from the Istanbul port along the Bosporus and moved up into the Black Sea. And when she arrived, it was the first time she had ever seen a machine gun. Even the university police were heavily armed as they lined up along the edges of one of the many student protests occurring in a two-week period. The protests began days earlier over an increase in tuition and only two days before she arrived, student conflict with the police escalated and people were hurt. She knew this because the students told her. She walked among them with her eye on the rows of guards and guns and asked about the costs of attending the university, watching for the first signs of a riot. Unlike the street vendors who spoke an average of four languages, the students did not speak English. With the help of a translator, a man who wanted to show her the city, she met a young Kurdish man who said, "Yes, but, I am also protesting the American government."

The crowds pushed in toward her and she quickly looked to the ground, ready to lie. "But I am Canadian," she was ready to say. The translator grew impatient.

"Come," he said. "There are many beautiful things in the city to be seen." He touched her arm lightly in effort to turn her away as the young Kurd continued talking.

"What is he saying?" she asked.

The translator was a middle-aged man in a business suit, though this gave her no indication of his profession. "He says that he is protesting the American government because the Americans sell guns to the Turks who use them to kill Kurds." And then the translator turned and left her standing in the center of the protest with the young Kurd whom she could no longer communicate with. Then she too quickly left.
During the daytime hours, the streets were gradually littered with the paper of street food and the countless butts of Camel cigarettes. A man who sold watches told her there were no trash cans because people would put bombs in them. He did not say who those people might be, but in the first dark hours of night, elderly men picked up the streets readying the city to begin fresh and unblemished at the opening of every day and every morning prayer offered the city its own kind of rebirth.

When she told Erol of the young Kurd and of the guns, he had little to say. "I have done my military service and I do not want to talk about guns." They sat in a café and drank tea as he set the backgammon pieces in place for a new game. The dice were rolled and pieces were moved and after several more minutes went by, she looked up, ready to press the issue.

"I didn't know you were in the military."

"We are all required to do two years of military service." He moved his two pieces and used one to remove one of hers from the board. Then, he looked at her. "I do not like it, but what should one do when one has neighbors like Iran?"

She rolled the dice but didn't know the answer. Perhaps he was right. What was there to say? He would not advocate military violence, and though it surrounded every breath he took, he would not give it voice. "You have seen enough of Sultanahmet," he said. "Let us go to Taksim."

Together they stood, leaving the board game on the table as the spirals from the two nearby mosques lit up in the dusky blue of the skyline. As they left the old town that housed the sultans' palace and Hagia Sophia to go toward the urban center of bars to drink and hear cover bands perform poor renditions of The Clash, they walked past the Blue Mosque, the largest mosque in Sultanahmet. In the postcards, the mosque hovers in the distance behind freshly sprung tulips, and she wondered if somewhere nearby under the earth were bulbs that would produce vibrant red and yellow petals once the snow no longer fell to the ground and she wished she could stay through the next few months, desiring, coveting, the promise of the early spring bloom.
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