Note to readers: This is the second in a series of posts about my writing on fear as part of the worldwide, place-passionate group of writers called #38Write. I chose to write about fear in the context of my Turkish-American marital roadtrip. Specifically, I am exposing and exploring my embarrassing fear of walking around by myself in Istanbul. You can read the seeds of how this came to be here.
In the last 24 hours or so, I have realized that my fear – which I already KNEW was not based in a statistical reality – was more about honoring a different family culture, my husband’s. i realized this thanks to the illuminating comments from two other women married to Turks whose American-based husbands have similar fears for their wives – despite liberal values, etc. Also, from another comment-leaver, I realize that my fear also probably relates to becoming middle aged. I grew up traveling and was generally probably too fearless in some instances (traveling every line if the Moscow subways solo, exploring the world at the end of each line – with rudimentary Russia at age 14? After ditching the Intourist guide?)
In any case, I am truly grateful for the generous, thoughtful & kind comment-leavers from my last post who analyzed along with me, invited me to go out with them and just generally helped me to get to the next step in analyzing this crazy fear.
I want to be clear that It wasn’t that I feared what happened to Sarai Sierra for Myself as much as it was that her death stirred up my thinking on the topic. To think that I was afraid to walk around the wealthy areas of Nişantaşı or Şişli – is laughable to me today (she says, blushing).
In any case, today’s post is the story of one day, about two years ago, when I finally ventured out of the Istanbul apartment on my own. While fear and anxiety are all over this essay – I feel myself beyond this now…and I think my husband is not too far behind on this!
Just the bare bones of the call to prayer trickle through the window. I wonder if my husband is hearing this, the afternoon ezan, while visiting a friend on Buyuk Ada – I’m not even sure there is a mosque there. Everyone else is at work, and I am wasting the day away inside my Istanbul apartment prison. I have the card key to the apartment. I can leave if I want to. The outside taxi cacophony chills my skin with its whirs and whizzes. I contemplate my self-imposed confinement. My fingers and toes touch the leaded window over the neighborhood; the coursing warmth of the city just at the bottom of the hill.
My fear’s zenith propels my turn away from the window, to the door. I’m going to do it. The formal clank of the leaden door behind me amputates some fear. Blood pounds hypertense in my ears. Sunshine softens my goosebumps. I target the mall below, across the boulevard. I’m in the mood for some buttery, cheese-filled börek, why not step out for some?
Stinging doubts swarm me as soon as the thought is out. My husband’s fear, my brother-in-law’s fear and my Father’s fear merged into the idea of me, walking alone, in Istanbul. “I’m an experienced traveler – why is this happening? What’s the matter with me?” But I am circumnavigating the curling stairs to the street. My throat constricts in exhaust-fume chilled garage. I swallow the thickening mucus of fear. Once outside, I squint in the golden warmth, locating my New York street-crossing skills while dodging cars.
Entering the mall, it’s a familiar drill. Place the bag on the magnetometer. Greet the attendant with “Iyi Günler.” Walk on. My heart rusts as the smiling, familiar attendant greets me with more than the usual pleasantries. This guard with the modern blue hijab recognizes me. Blushing, I muster “sorry, don’t understand!” She rubs my shoulder knowingly, waives me on with a smile. I feel comfort for a moment – the fear in my mind’s eye distracted. I am known here.
Stepping onto the speeding escalator, I accidentally brush against a middle-aged man, and feel my skin is still on red alert. I don’t want him to get the wrong idea. He doesn’t seem to notice. I pose myself with the question – “what could happen in a shopping mall? Why am I worried about this?” I make sure my wedding ring is showing.
Cupping my lira in my pocket, I head for the börekci. I am so focused on practicing my order in mental loops, that I overshoot the entrance. Not wanting to look stupid, I walk around the block again for a second try. I try on an ‘I-belong-here’ swagger at entry. Grinning nervously, my Turkish is quickly answered in English. I slink to the farthest table. I spoon slow, deliberate portions of hot, buttery börek into my mouth. A few unadulterated moments of normalcy emerge from the noodles, maybe even some joy. Perhaps I should walk into Nişantaşı and sit in the park around the mosque? I begin to rationalize the idea, thinking “lots of women sit there with their kids. Isn’t the language of women and children universal? This is a modern city – this is not Tehran or Qatar. I don’t have to veil. I’m dressed more conservatively than my Turkish niece who left the house in a micro-mini this morning. I shouldn’t be fearful as a woman. I should just go out and walk around.”
As my plate cools, my worries begin to simmer again, “I should go home. This is enough. What if the building guard doesn’t recognize me? What if the key card to the apartment doesn’t work?” Oddly, my calm consumes these worries in one messy gulp. Warming to taking the long way home, I head out. My legs ache with shin splints as I negotiate the steep hill. Children are laughing and playing in the park – it’s just a block away. Traversing the park, I smile at the mothers and children, but I am unnoticed. All the park benches are filled, so I pretend to intentionally cross the street in an arc towards home. My brain is an odd mix of puffed up peacock and plummeting pigeon careening down the hill. My knees hurt from the angle of the street as I feel the comfort of the guard at my apartment block. He lets me pass. The key card works. The door closes me in again. I deflate, shivering in the cold air conditioning.
The clock tells me I was gone for about fifteen minutes.