Saturday, December 31, 2011

The People of Istanbul

What’s to say about a city where it’s okay to smoke two packs a day but it’s wrong to eat bacon? Where you need to keep your windows closed, even in 100-degree heat, because cold air will enter and you’ll get sick and die? Where a boy isn’t circumcised until he turns ten? Where you can’t feed babies anything with soy, or else they’ll become gay? Where the first act in eliminating male body hair is for a 14-year-old boy’s mother to shave his pubic hair?

Where young women think twice about going out on the town with their friends because “people will talk?”

For all that, Istanbul is very much a 21st century megacity of 10 million or 12 million people. No one seems quite sure.  Part of the population has vaulted into the modern age, while the ninety-nine percent still have one foot in the past, have not shared in much of the new wealth and live a tenuous day-to-day existence waiting for the inevitable moment when inflation spikes, the economy tanks, someone bad takes over the government or an earthquake hits, all of which have been inevitable and always will be.

Perhaps the biggest difference between poor and comfortable is the extent to which you can control your fate. “Inshallah” doesn’t mean so much “It’s God’s will” as it does “Shit happens.”

Istanbul officially began around 660 B.C.E, so it was nearly nine centuries old when it became the capital of the Roman Empire in 390 A.D. It was Constantinople until 1490 or so—about the time Columbus sailed to the New World—when it became Istanbul.

I mention this not for a history lesson, but to point out the most salient characteristic of Istanbul’s people: It may be the 21st Century, but it’s also the 20th, 19th, 18th and so on, all at the same time. That’s the past the 99 percent still inhabits to one degree or another, and it’s as much a faultline as the geological ones that crisscross the entire region.

Walk the commercial areas, and many people are as chic and sophisticated as Parisians striding confidently through the First Arrondissement.  The young ones, both women and men, are exceedingly attractive, with their doe-like eyes, chiseled Aegean faces, glowing skin and thick, radiant dark hair.  They seem to be in constant motion. Even standing, their eyes dance like glitter and their hands twitch in more verbs than their conversation which erupts in stanzas of excited syncopation.

But then, there are the older folk of middle to old age—the Babushkas and the Old Guys.

The Babushkas , while not covered, tend to be dressed in gray or brown body dresses that resemble heavy twill raincoats without buttons, and headscarves.  Heavy sacks jammed with groceries or household goods strain both arms.  Built like hydrants, they usually walk in twos and threes and move aside for no one, the expressions on their faces saying things can’t get any worse and we’re all doomed anyway.  Ask one of them something—English is not widely spoken—and she’ll give you a look that simultaneously smiles and says, “Are you fucking kidding me?”

The traditional retirement age in Turkey has been—drum roll, please—forty-five, so the street corners are inhabited by legions of Old Guys who may not be all that old. But they look it nonetheless.  Either thin or stocky (there are very few fat Turks), their faces are Masques of Tragedy emblazoned with thick white or gray moustaches. Each wrinkle on their faces is a different story. Constantly smoking, they wear black wool coats and thick shoes, their heads adorned with a newsboy-style cap or thickly-woven pull-ons that would have been a fez in another century (Ataturk banned the wearing of a fez).

The Old Guys commandeer street corners singly or in small groups debating everything from the high price of lamb to the latest conspiracy involving the CIA and Israel.  Stop to ask one of them something, such as “Where is a camera store,” and he will pull his chin for a second or two and dart into a shop to fetch a clerk who has twenty-or-so words of English.

After determining the nature of your question, he will gather together all the nearby groups of Old Guys, who will debate amongst themselves with shrugs and gesticulating arms , every once in a while looking back at you and pushing at the air with the palm of his hand while nodding with his eyes closed, as if to say “Don’t worry, don’t worry, we’ve got you covered.”

And he will tell you, in Turkish, where the store is, so he can make sure that you don’t understand the most magnificent language in the world. Next, he will personally escort you to the store and tell the owner you are his friend and should be treated with respect. Offer a tip, and you’ll insult him.

Of course, you know that the Babushkas and the Old Guys are married, and you wonder how it goes at home.