Writing about fear: Sarai Sierra in Istanbul (Part 1)

Rest in Peace Sarai Sierra (Image from ABC News)

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!


Dear M.,

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[1]? 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[2], how can we change this?



[1] Istiklal Caddesi is a famous shopping boulevard in central Istanbul

[2] Canım benim means “my dear” or “my darling”

This entry was posted in Gendered moments, On Islam and Muslims, Turkish Controversies, Turkish-American Matters and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Writing about fear: Sarai Sierra in Istanbul (Part 1)

  1. backtobodrum says:

    A thought provoking post that makes me review my 28 years of marriage in Turkey. I think just growing older makes us less adventurous and more risk adverse.

  2. lizcameron says:

    Thank you so much for visiting, and for your comment. I also think that growing older is a big bit of this – I’m not the fearless purple mohawked traveler of my youth! What is most interesting to me, however, is how I am somehow for the very first time in this marriage, embracing a fear based on male fear and semi-dictate/wishes…

  3. Turklish says:

    Hi Liz,
    It was great to see a post from you this morning! Welcome back! Sorry for the long comment here, but you hit on several big topics and I can connect with various sentiments you expressed in this post. I too have dealt with this fear from my significant other related to travel in Turkey. He is worried that I stick out from the crowd too much and I’m obviously not Turkish, which might draw unwanted and even dangerous attention from males. I have a suspicion that this fear could be partially from living far away from Turkey for so long and feeling a bit disconnected with society there – but that is just a guess. I was also feeling a bit worried about this, because my spirit has always felt free and (mostly) fearless when traveling. While it is good to be a little wary when walking around – even in a place that is home – fear is stifling and I can understand that you want to unload some of it.

    I recommend reading Katharine Branning’s book about Turkey “Yes, I would love another cup of tea”. She talks about her experiences travelling ALONE in Turkey for over 30 years! She has spent a lot of time in Istanbul and other big cities, as well as many weeks in small villages and around the East. Her best piece of advice is to dress and act in a way that matches local culture, even though she never blends in, with her blond hair and taller than average height, she has had relatively few bad experiences in her travels. It might help dispel some of your fear – as it helped me with mine.

    About Sarai Sierra, I would have to agree with your husband that the news surrounding this event is odd to say the least. The news in Turkish is sharing much different details than the American news lets on – for example, that she is perhaps connected to a drug mafia that was using her to transport goods around Europe (hence those strange side trips to Germany and Amsterdam). http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/gundem/22509010.asp

    Who knows the truth surrounding this case? The reality is, any woman traveling alone in a foreign land (or even here in the US) should probably exercise a little bit of caution with who they choose to trust or even drink a tea with. I feel sorry for her family and it is sad that her life was cut short. I still see this as one case and I don’t know how much we can read from it. I guess time will tell.

  4. Welcome back, Liz. I have been dropping in occasionally to your blog and anxiously awaiting your return. I’m glad to see you back in action with another of your thoughtful and thought-provoking posts. You wrote above that you “cringed” thinking of what I or some of your other -e-acquaintances might think about your fears related to exploring Istanbul on your own. First off, please know that I think you are one of the bravest women I have met. You write and share thoughts and musings on your blog so openly. As for me, I am still fearful of opening myself in that way, especially because of fear of exposing my children. So, even though you feel that you may have capitulated to M’s and his family’s fears in the physical sense of exploring Istanbul, you are clearly so fearless when it comes to this blog. Bravo!

    Like you I have been very upset about what happened to Sarai Sierra. My first reaction when I heard about her disappearance and her death was “Oh dear. Another chance for more bashing of all things foreign, Turkish and/or Muslim.” Sadly, in the on-line comments I’ve read since the news of her death was made public, there is a lot of that xenophobia. But there are also some sane voices, like Turklish’s above, that reiterate the fact that violence against women can, and does, happen anywhere in the world. Who knows what really happened in the case of Sarai. What matters is that we travelers and expats exercise the same caution when visiting foreign countries as we would in our own home towns. Personally, I’ve always felt safe in Istanbul and in my husband’s hometown on the Black Sea. I do take pains to try and blend in as much as a blonde American woman can. When I’m in Turkey I dress more conservatively than I do in the U.S. and I’ve adopted some of my in-laws’ suggestions, as dubious as they sound to me. For example, while on the Black Sea this summer I took a daily walk from our little village to the next village four kilometers away. Many local women and men walk this same route so I reasoned it must be safe. My in-laws were a bit nonplussed at first — why would I want to walk when there was a dolmus, after all? 🙂 They insisted I take a large walking stick with me to “fight off any wild dogs” (part of the path runs through a hazelnut grove). I was mortified at first but I did indeed carry the stick because I knew it would ease their minds.

    So, what can I say to ease your fear/dismay about taking on your family’s fears? On the one hand, it’s honorable that you are, in a way, showing your love for M. by respecting his wishes. On the other hand, your very vivid description of how the fear has immobilized you — “toe tips to the glass” — was very heartbreaking for me to read. I know that my husband was very tense the whole time I was in Istanbul this summer with our kids (he was in the U.S.) We checked in every day and I was in constant contact with our Turkish relatives and friends. Like Turklish I suspect that some of his fears come from his not having lived in Istanbul for over 12 years. Even today, discussing Sarai’s death, he said, “Oh, that Galata area were she was staying used to be so awful”. He has no sense of what that area’s like now because he hasn’t been there. “Anything can happen, ” he says. True, but anything can happen anywhere. Bad and good anythings. That is the horror and the beauty of life.

  5. Alan says:

    . . good to have you back dear friend. Your fears are so at odds with how J feels about travelling this country; that is not to say that bad things don’t happen – just that the dark threats and nightmares are absent based on experience. There are some nasty aspects to this country’s macho mentality – a (UK ex-pat resident) friend’s husband died a couple of years ago and she had to put up with a stream men who thought that she would be grateful to be ‘serviced’ by these social cripples. Cultural repression of sex and sexuality has all sorts of nasty consequences – newspapers here add to the problem with page after page of soft porn – I don’t have an answer to your fears or the sickness of this modern, all-consuming, greedy society. Actually, I do, but here is not the place 🙂

  6. Thanks for your article. I agree with some of the comments above that age probably plays a part in how our perceptions change. Mine have gone the opposite way since moving to Turkey, strangely. Back in the UK, I never felt safe when walking around alone, particularly at night, and was always checking over my shoulder. In Turkey, granted I’m not alone very much, but I’m not concerned about being alone. We live in Fethiye and most people know us but we know Istanbul pretty well, too, and I’ve always felt safer there than in the UK.

  7. Rosamond says:

    Nice to see you back Liz. I am going to keep this short because your post has inspired me to write about my thoughts and experience on my own blog.
    First of all, One cannot live a life fearing all the shadows, it’s no life!! Most men fear for their woman travelling alone abroad and they will usually find a reason why they shoudnt, it’s their protective gene lol. Secondly i personally believe your time of birth and death are ordained and if this poor young woman didn’t die in Istanbul she could have been run over by a bus elsewhere. I believe our lives are not without purpose even though most people can’t see it and it’s not until death that for those left behind the purpose is revealed. In this case perhaps it’s to teach other travellers to be cautious and sensible. Who knows how many lives will be saved in the future through Sarai ‘s death. Bless her!

  8. Liz, I read your post and the comments you made on my blog. This is a very thought provoking and honest post. Kudos to you for reaching out. My views are quite the opposite as I mentioned and my American husband has never feared for my safety in Istanbul. I grew up in a small, sheltered town in the Midwest and became a whole different (outgoing) person when I moved to NYC at age 28. I embraced my freedom and continue to seek out personal explorations while at the same time always using common sense and street smarts whether it’s here in Istanbul or abroad.

  9. ceylanzry says:

    Dear Liz, I am sorry to hear about your fear wandering around alone in Istanbul. As a Turkish woman, I can understand your Turkish family’s concerns because they always tend to be over protective by habit & traditions no matter where you are from or whatever you do. I am from Istanbul for many generations, I am tall, blonde, and I have blue eyes : I totally look like a “tourist” in this city. Besides, I am a licensed guide and I walk around every corner of Istanbul all by myself! I traveled around Turkey from east to west for many years, to the mountains, furthest villages, to the places which you could say ” in the middle of nowhere” . I should say I’ve traveled out of Turkey alone quite a lot..from India to San Fransisco…bottom line is : I never had any unpleasant experiences or memories! Why? First of all, I think the most important thing is self-confidence, not fear! People around you feel that and respect that. This keeps you safe. I am adventurous but I don’t take nonsense risks like climbing upto a mountain top in the middle of the night or walk by the darkest and the emptiest streets of the city. I spend quite a lot of time in Karakoy and Galata but still don’t wander around Tarlabasi at night. I am old enough to witness the transformation in the city and I remember that we wouldn’t even think about walking down to Karakoy from Tunel. I do that now, but as always being cautious. I think if you are not at the wrong places at wrong times, if you travel smartly, you are equally safe anywhere in the world.
    I am so sorry about Sarai. Whatever the reason is nobody deserves to die like this anywhere in the world. I am sorry that happenned in Istanbul.

  10. Pingback: Writing about fear: An afternoon excursion in Nişantaşı (Part 2) | Slowly-by-Slowly

  11. lizcameron says:

    Thank you so much, Ceylan, for writing. I am so appreciative that you reached out – and for your kind words. Your interpretation of my situation really helped me to look at all of this in a new light – as it did for my husband as well. The odd thing for me is that in all of my other travels- your advice would be the advice I would be living – or giving another woman traveler. The cultural element here is slippery, living in a grey area of non-acknowledgement…but thanks to you – getting clearer! Best, Liz

  12. lizcameron says:

    Thanks so much for reading my piece – and for your comments and encouragement. I had to laugh a bit at our opposite trajectories – I grew up in a Northeastern city and embraced my freedom to the max – and now in middle age, somehow Istanbul managed to stymie that. However, thanks to all of the comments on this post – and on several re-reads of your own – I am starting to pick apart the reasons for my (crazy) fear – middle age, deferring to the wishes of my Turkish family…the good news is that a) all of this has started a really good conversation with my husband and b) much of the writing yesterday and the day before were about times before 2 years ago – so I have actually ventured outside a bit on my own – and now will do more!

  13. lizcameron says:

    Hi Rosamond – Thanks for your nice words! Yes, one CANNOT live a life fearing the shadows – indeed it is no life. It has just been odd to me that in middle age, this formerly adventurous person has shied a bit. I don’t doubt your comments on predetermined destiny – and in a way – that provides us with a courage to NOT live in the shadows. I am looking forward to reading your piece! Liz

  14. lizcameron says:

    Thanks so much for writing, Julia. Yes, I am really tuning in to the age part. In some ways, I would think that age would be a protective factor (I look older as I choose NOT to dye my hair – that’s a big negative with the Turkish family but I don’t care – I like my “silver hair” but I digress). All of your comments – and the comments here have helped me to take this issue to a different level. And I am grateful for that. We did a quick stop in Fethiye last summer on the way to visit a friend in Kas, and it looks like a lovely place to live!

  15. lizcameron says:

    Hi Alan,

    Thanks so much for the welcome back, hopefully I’ll be more back than forth in the months to come.

    I know HOW very at odds they are with J’s – without even seeing your comment. I would feel safer in Anatolia or Bozcaada than the city – but I also wonder how much of this relates to language which J has and I do not.

    I think the key relates to M.’s respect for keeping me safe given the situation with my family’s worries about him in the early years – combined with his brother who is a tad bit more conservative.

    All of these comments has led us to some really, really good conversations about it. And I look forward to one with you in another place!


  16. lizcameron says:


    I cannot tell you how honored I am at your kind words in this comment. I really appreciate the reframe on this issue – and also the fact that you pointed out a cultural element that I wasn’t really aware of. I tend to think of M. and his family as so liberal and in M.’s case, Americanized re: gender issues, that I lost sight of this. I am also thank you for concurring with Turklish on this matter – your chorus of 2 really got me to thinking about the culture shift that has happened in Ist – that our 3 have, perhaps, missed, leaving them to old ideas. It’s confusing – on the one hand M. says “it used to be so safe” and on the other hand many women here and in the expat blogosphere say “it’s safe” and many say “but not there.” I have walked around there – where she stayed – and have friends living there – so who knows? It’s all so sad with Sarai – but really that’s the lesser point – it’s just what triggered me to put myself out there on this issue re: fear.

    Now, on to that big stick – I really got a belly laugh about that! I can only imagine what was going through your mind as you walked along with it. How many times did you actually walk with the stick? Did your in-laws relent? I hear you on that subtle change of dress when I am in Turkey – my female in-laws always kid me about it (they are the micro-miniskirt type)…it’s such a very odd mix of gender expectations, class and culture. Ai!

    Thank you so much, once again, for all of these helpful thoughts,


  17. lizcameron says:


    I am so appreciative of your comment – and I am never upset at a long one! It is so nice to have a comment to engage with. I have been thinking about you and wondering how you have been feeling on the Sarai Sierra matter since your return from the trip – and how Istanbul may or may not differ from Maras and Antep and your experiences there.

    It looks as though Justine supports your notion that being away from Turkey for a while might impact how our significant others react on the issue of gender, safety and solo travel (short or long). I really think there is a lot to this – and add my voice to the chorus. I don’t stand out as much as some – I have darker hair and somewhat darker skin, so there are times that I “pass” especially with my dress (which I change when in Turkey to being a bit more conservative, as with Justine).

    I agree with Katharine Branning’s advice – and have seen her work. I do wonder the extent to which the earlier times of her 30 years worth of travels make up her mind on this matter…

    On Sarai Sierra – an anomaly, statistically, of course. And nothing compared to what happens to Turkish women on a daily basis – the sad, hard, awful truth that is hard to face – and perhaps harder for those of us partnered with Turkish men.

    In any case – thank you for your comments- and for helping me forward on this topic!


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