Rest in Peace Sarai Sierra (Image from ABC News)
Hello dear readers. Well, I’m ashamed to say that I’ve been on another silent and unexpected sojourn away from blogging, mostly due to the continued keşmekeş related to my in-process epiphany about the purpose of this blog – and the memoir it is attached to.
My epiphany has been inspired, in part, by my participation in the wonderful worldwide, online writing group called #38Write. This past month, we wrote on the topic “I eat fear.” As I am using my participation in #38Write to foster writing related to my memoir on my Turkish-American marital road trip, I of course had to address the topic of fear in that context.
And so, in looking for a topic to write about related to my marriage, I decided to push myself to write about something I am embarrassed about. This writing topic has been so very unexpected for me – my own fear about solo excursions around Istanbul when not on Bozcaada. The truth is, this fear has evolved in the 9 years I have been together with my husband. The other embarrassing truth is that this fear has grown, in fact, from the parallel fears of my husband, my brother-in-law and my father about me, going out, alone, in Istanbul. What is especially odd to me is that my Turkish and American families are totally secular, open-minded and liberal gender-wise, all things considered. Writing this, I cringe at when I think of the smart cadre of American women e-acquaintances married to Turks that might catch wind of this (Justine Ickes over at Culture Every Day, Catharine Bayar over at Bazaar Bayar, the inimitable women of Global Niche – Tara Aacayak and Anastasia Ashman and others).
It is worth it to note that I am blushing as I write this – it sounds ridiculous to my ears, as an experienced traveler and an independent-minded feminist, that I would be afraid to go out on the street alone even with some significant street smarts.
–Am I not the person who dodged my Soviet Intourist guide at age 16 to walk the 1984 streets of Tbilisi, Georgia unencumbered?
–Am I not the person who did home visits to my criminal defendant clients alone in some unsavory sections of the Bronx?
–Am I not the person who took a significant jaunt away from family in Corsica, speaking barely any French?
–Am I not the person who has been traveling to not-your-average destinations since I was a young teen?
Mercy, what the hell has happened to my independence – or is it some sort of common sense evolution? Yes, I am all those Liz Camerons I listed above, but I am still afraid to go around Istanbul on my own.
So, OK, I am afraid to go around Istanbul on my own, but what does this have to do with my memoir-writing epiphany? Well, it relates to my over-zealous effort to balance the negative dominant society imagery about Turkish men, violence against women in the Middle East and the general notion of safety for Americans in Turkey. I wanted to allay and balance people’s worst fears about my husband, his birth country and my safety in Istanbul. And part of this related to the pain of seeing my husband (who does not fit the typical macho Turkish male stereotype) and his birth country stereotyped by some dear friends in this regard. And while this remains true, what I have come to see is that my overbearing attempt to dispel some stereotypes about Turks led me to realize that I wasn’t accepting of what can be the worst of Turkey or, for that matter, any culture. It can, of course, happen anywhere. And, I’ll have to deal with the stereotypes that emerge from such incidents no matter what.
So this has been in the back of my mind as I have been musing on how to proceed with my memoir – but of course, the death of Sarai Sierra (an American woman traveling in Istanbul) – has brought it boiling over, right to the front burner of my mental stove. Ms. Sierra was a young photographer, wife and mother from Staten Island, New York, who had disappeared on the day she was to return from her trip. As I understand it, it was her first trip outside of the United States, a trip Ms. Sierra was to take with a friend who had to cancel at the last minute – so she went anyway. I wouldn’t have thought to do differently as a young woman who HAD done a significant amount of travel around the world. The English language news in Turkey is quick and correct, to point out that this sort of incident is rare when it comes to foreign women in Turkey, although of course, violence against Turkish women is not, as Hurriyet Daily News wrote about or Amnesty International addressed, for example. But the facts remain, Ms. Sierra, a women doing solo travel has been killed in the city that my husband, brother-in-law and father were so afraid for me to traverse on a day trip.
As I pulled my thoughts on my own fear, Sarai Sierra and solo travel in Istanbul together this morning, I re-initiated a discussion on the topic with my husband. “Canım,” I began, “how does Sarai Sierra’s death impact your thoughts on me going around Istanbul by myself? His (paraphrased) response: “Well, that Sarai Sierra case is odd – I think there was more going on than meets the eye – but it underscores what I know, that It’s not safe for you. When I left Istanbul 20 years ago, you could walk around Beyoğlu with cash in your pocket – not show it – but not worry. Now it’s different – you are not safe for money, your body, anything. Especially a woman who doesn’t know the city, really know it. I just can’t risk that.”
My husband’s nonplussed, clear-as-a-bell response to my question mirrors his blasé attitude about this week’s bombing at the U.S. Embassy in Ankara – used to it, happens all the time, “it’s sad, but what do you want me to say?” It is an accepted reality for him. The problem is, I just can’t sit with this. I am so sad about Sarai Sierra’s death, but I don’t want it to represent Istanbul for women travelers. Yet it further impacts my own fear – and that’s just not ok with me. And so we are wrestling with this, what is there to do? How can I be me – and independent – and less fearful woman that I used to know?
So, in my first of two posts on writing about fear, here is a letter to my husband, part of my #38Write assignment, exploring how my fear came to be. It’s certainly a major bump in this Turkish-American road trip that needs more work!
I am pretty sure you know that nowadays, I fear exploring Istanbul on my own. I’m pretty sure you feel guilty about that, as you, in part, set this in motion. Do you remember when I suggested a solo afternoon on Istiklal Caddesi? Your voice melded with your elder brother’s Turkish protestations into a resounding “no.” You drew me close, kissed me. Narrating your promise to my father (who wasn’t your fan in any sense of the word, I know), you repeated, verbatim “I will take care of her, nothing will happen to her. How could I explain it if you got taken? You don’t know this city, what people can do.” Do you remember, that to avoid an argument in front of my potential brother-in-law, I acquiesced. “I’ll watch, learn,” I decided, “and do it next time.” Slowly, however, over the years, your fear turned into mine, not only for my Father, but for you, and for me as well.
How odd, the emergence of this fear, after decades of my often-risky travel around the world. Odd indeed, after navigating new transportation systems, languages and terrains unfazed by the usual glitches. Particularly odd, this fear, as you kiddingly call me the “Navigatrix” – able to conjure a mental map comprised of little more than sun rays and spatial memory. Indeed quite odd, given your bragging about my superior capabilities in circumnavigating the Kapalı Çarşı as compared to you. Especially odd, as I come from a line of intrepid female trekkers, bravely venturing to unknown places for a taste of sights unexpected, the smell of the as-yet un-considered. And hypocritically odd, as I study “the dignity of everyday risk” for community-based people with disabilities.
Yet, here I am in Gülay’s apartment, our Istanbul home away from our island home, fearful of leaving alone. Eyeing what’s beyond the window, glints of mythic horror reflect back. As my lips touch the leaded glass, I taste grey-blue tension, fear thickening in my throat. Fingertips on the window, I feel my blood coursing phobic, hypertense with images of the trafficked women I worked with in Brooklyn. Toe tips to the glass now, my heels are flat on the marble. I’m frozen, a choppy Brancusi sculpture. My fear is as complete, as perfect, as sterile vacuum tunnel with no aroma. Intertwined now with all these male fears, my fear is a patriarchy-infused oddity I never expected. Canım benim, how can we change this?
 Istiklal Caddesi is a famous shopping boulevard in central Istanbul
 Canım benim means “my dear” or “my darling”