Writing about fear: An afternoon excursion in Nişantaşı (Part 2)

Nişantaşı (Image by Isik5 at deviantart.com)

Nişantaşı (Image by Isik5 at deviantart.com)

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.

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

10 Responses to Writing about fear: An afternoon excursion in Nişantaşı (Part 2)

  1. Turklish says:

    Another great post Liz! Let me say – I’m so glad that you are openly airing out these fears. You have helped me to realize several things – 1) That I also have a good deal of this type of fear, although I think mine is socially related in that I am afraid to say the wrong thing in Turkish, or to not make myself understood. I get sweaty palms and shaky legs when I first go to Turkey and try out my rusty Turkish alone. It makes me want to stay at home instead of going out and about by myself as well. It’s a bad dose of perfectionism and I need to get over it. Any suggestions?

    2) It is good to hear that other women have similar experiences with their Turkish husbands – I was worried about this “fear” my fiance had for me in Turkey. It put him and me on edge a bit. It helps to know that these feelings come from cultural upbringing and love, but I hope that this is something that can be remedied with time and experience.

  2. Wow, Liz – thank you so much for this! I really thought I was the only one who had this particular kind of fear. It drives me mad because I don’t understand where it comes from, and why it afflicts me, the experienced traveller! But your posts have really helped me, both to understand where it comes from and to know that I’m not alone.

    If we’re ever in Istanbul at the same time, let’s go a-walking together!

  3. Alan says:

    nicely written Liz! Apart from that I don’t know what this insensitive clod can say – sometimes I’m glad I’m unaware of some of the vibes, othertimes it leads to situations – embarrassing, confrontational, disturbing. My upbringing gave me plenty of places to hide.

  4. lizcameron says:

    Hi again L.!

    Thanks very much for your compliment, and the support. Gosh – I am sure you are not the only one who is afraid to say the wrong thing in Turklish – I am pretty fearless about just launching out into speaking in Spanish as I am fairly conversational due to my Granny BUT it’s a different matter for me in Turkish. Last night, I totally goofed on that – post to come. Luckily it was just with M. and we had a great laugh. I can totally relate to sweaty palms and shakey legs when you first go – I can remember that feeling SO well on my first two trips!

    In terms of suggestions – I think the only way through it is just that – through it. Just go out, try, fail, learn, try, succeed, learn, gain confidence – I would make small sojourns to the store for beyaz peynir or a cay – and go slow. As an academic, the perfectionism thing is haunting – that’s hard to turn off, I find. 😦 and it strikes me that this aspect of you and I – the academically trained one – does not help us in this regard perhaps??? Something to chew over in our minds.

    I can see your relief on #2 – given the assumptions that many have about my husband (that he is a) super religious, b) controlling c) into gender-specific behaviors in some stereotypical sene – it scared ME when he started to object to my ideas of solo excursions…I wondered if perhaps finally the “truth” about him was coming out – that maybe there WAS a macho side of him. Thanks to your comments – and comments from all the women here – I am seeing that it is MUCH more complicated than that! I can relate – and we both get on edge about it, but good to know we are not alone and I totally agree on time and experience. I also think that Maras will be different????


  5. lizcameron says:

    I am SO uplifted by your comment! Thanks for “coming out” with me on this matter.

    On walking Istanbul – DEAL! I’ll be there on May 29th for a few days and then again at the end of June for a few days – keep me posted!!!


  6. lizcameron says:

    Thank you for the compliment, A!

    Insensitive clod? Not you.

    I am curious about what you mean in your response here – but we can talk about it offline!

    Hoping you may have had another lovely interlude day!


  7. Misirlou says:

    You must go out a little longer every day. Become a regular at one of the cafés, just for a cup of coffee or çay. Take a book with you on a good day. Sit in the courtyard at Sultan Ahmet and read in the sun. Smile at people. I am so jealous that you get to live in Istanbul! It is one of my favorite cities.

  8. Such a fascinating conversation. Maybe I share some of Alan’s “insensitive clod” DNA – just kidding – because I feel very comfortable traipsing around Istanbul. That said, I remember clearly the first time I put my foot down and said I wasn’t going to accompany my husband and children to his hometown on the Black Sea. We had been going every year for about ten years and I was just needing a break from that routine. Rather, I chose to stay in Istanbul and take Turkish classes. It was one of the best things I’ve done with respect to Turkey and our marriage because it helped me sort of “own” the city on my own terms. Prior to that, my experience of the city has been filtered through my husband. Mind you, he was perplexed at first by my choice, not the least of his worries being, “How am I going to explain this to my family?” In the end, I ended up (re)discovering parts of the city that he hadn’t visited in ages. And I forced to get out of my somewhat lazy mode of “Oh, I don’t need to pay attention b/c H. will guide me around.” I agree about venturing out to safe places, taking a book and finding a quiet cafe (I am happy to make suggestions), and observing. Or you could enlist some rambunctious children to yank you outside. That certainly “helped” in my case this summer. There is nothing like being cooped up with two kids in a flat without air-conditioning to make you go outside. 😉 Now, your and Turklish’s sweaty palms about speaking Turkish, THAT I can totally relate to. As for thriving in a cross-cultural marriage, your comment about your fear about “the truth coming out about M. — that maybe there was a macho side of him” sounds so familiar to me. Yes, there are layers of complexity there. I think we do often harbor fears like these. That’s normal but still very important to be aware of and to explore our own feelings and fears and see where they may manifest in our relationships. In fact, you’ve given me an idea for a blog post or two. 🙂

  9. Pingback: The Karagöz puppets return…with a kabak and some çapak for my Turkish lesson | Slowly-by-Slowly

  10. Pingback: Feeling The Fear in Istanbul | Green and Ginger

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