Postcards

Postcards from Istanbul

#1 – The Grifters
No-one bothers you in western Europe: you interact with the staff in shops and restaurants, but otherwise you go about unmolested, very much a private individual. So it was something of a shock to arrive in Istanbul and find myself addressed by nearly everyone I passed in the street. I was staying in Sultanahmet, the historic district containing Topkapi Palace, the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofya; it’s also the main tourist quarter. On my first night, waiting for my friend Helga to arrive from London, I lit out for the main strip of restaurants and souvenir shops, map in hand, looking very much the foreigner. (I soon came to realise what a physical oddity I was to the locals, with my height and my blue-and-red sneakers and my slicked-back hair: I really stuck out.)

As I walked along I was approached by a young man, small and handsome, his hair slicked up. He addressed me in English and asked where I was from. He told me that he was from out of town too, in Istanbul from Ankara for the weekend. He asked me if I would like to go for a drink. I thought there must be some kind of put-on involved and was anyway still getting my bearings; I politely declined. A little while later another young man approached: he too apparently was from Ankara and wanted to go for a drink. He was a little more persistent than the first; when I told him I preferred just to walk around he accompanied me for a little while, obviously hoping I would change my mind. Eventually he moved on, only to be supplanted by a third young man, with the same story and request. Clearly there was a pattern, but I wasn’t quite sure where the take was.

There are lots of hustlers in Barcelona, but the attitude there is tinged with contempt; his attempt to part you from your money reflects his low opinion of you. This felt different: it was sportive, a little flirtatious, like I was being invited to play a game. The men had the sort of roguish good looks that I’ve always had a weakness for; they were skilled in building rapport, carefully laying a hand on my arm. They each trotted out the same corny pick-up line: they asked if I liked Istanbul and when I said I did, replied, “Istanbul likes you.” It was like they’d all been under the tutelage of the same Turkish Fagin. Later I found out the nature of the game: should they succeed in getting you to come with them, they take you to a bar owned by friends, where they get you drunk and then quietly slip out, leaving you to pay an exorbitant bar tab. (There was a part of me that wanted to be had, just to find out where I ended up.)

In some ways they were representative figures: Istanbul is very much a city on the make. Like Buenos Aires, the streets are full of people trying to make a living on the margins. It amounts to another economy – there are the regular shops and cafes, and then there are the street vendors. These little businesses are usually portable – a man walks by, rattling a pan of popcorn over a small stove, or pushes a glassed-in trolley full of simit (a round bread roll embedded with sesame seeds, similar to a bagel). One day, while sitting in a cafe in Beyoglu, a quartet of musicians set up opposite us, played a ten-minute set of 1930s jazz, and as quickly moved on again. Other entrepreneurs set up impromptu stalls on rugs, selling everything from battered paperbacks to eerie toy cats with glowing eyes. It gives the city a happy, clamorous variety: walk down any street and you’re never quite sure what you’re going to encounter.

It does have its wearing side – the never-ending pitch. Like my trio of hustlers, most of the people we encountered in Istanbul were expert salesmen. It begins with friendliness – an extended hand that the Australian in me found it very hard to resist. Though it was unfeigned, this friendliness always had an object – it ended in proffered goods, or an invitation to visit a shop. Sometimes it was hard to extricate ourselves from these situations; the restaurant tout would literally not let go of my hand once he had it. Once it turned a little nasty – a carpet salesman who we fobbed off at the entrance to the Blue Mosque told us in no uncertain terms that his prosperity did not depend on our trade. Soon, we were fending off each new approach with a pre-emptive “Hayır, teşekkürler.”

So it was nice to meet with some unalloyed friendliness, as Helga and I did one afternoon after poking round the Grand Bazaar. Backgammon is a popular pastime in Istanbul: you see pairs of men sitting with their checkers outside cafes. Helga had taught it to me a few nights before: now we sat out on low canvas stools in an alley nearby, playing it in public. We soon attracted the attention of three men sitting at the next table – they looked over with curiosity and amusement, as if we were monkeys that had somehow mastered their game. Soon one of them was advising Helga on her strategy, while the other two engaged me in broken English and Turkish. They assumed – as most people had – that Helga and I were married; we’d found it easy to go along with this assumption. It turned out that two of them owned a lingerie business; the other one was a soldier. The whole conversation had the beautiful sense of accomplishment you get when people manage to communicate despite having no language in common – we’d come through something together. I pulled out the Turkish application on my iPhone to help bridge the gap; one of the men circled his favourite places in Helga’s tourist guide. They asked if Helga and I had children (a frequent question in Istanbul: the family instinct seems to be very important there) – we told them not yet, that we wanted to travel first. (I felt a bit sheepish, as if I was neglecting my reproductive duties.) Finally, they asked if we wanted to meet up later for dinner. This time, it didn’t feel like a put-on, and we exchanged numbers before parting. The call never came – they probably got home to their wives and found responsibilities more pressing than taking a couple of random foreigners out to dinner – but it didn’t matter. We’d made a couple of friends; Istanbul really did like us.

On one of our last nights there we ran across a chastening illustration of what provides the impetus for all the salesmanship. Walking over a pedestrian bridge, we saw a small boy – perhaps eight or nine – sitting despondent on the stairs. All round him there were shards of glass and huge splatters of shoe polish – he’d somehow broken his shoeblack’s equipment. A number of people were already talking to him, but he barely responded. He sat with his shoulders slumped, his head sunk low: his posture expressed total defeat. Whether he feared a parent’s anger or was simply in despair at the loss of his means of income I’m not sure, but the image stayed with me for a long time. This was the flipside of the exuberant pursuit of success: this was the consequence of failure. Someone’s foothold in life can be so uncertain that the loss of a few bottles of shoe polish can be a major catastrophe. It’s enough to make you forgive a little grift.