For centuries, Europeans viewed the Turk as the most feared, yet least familiar enemy. Twice, the Ottoman hordes threatened Vienna, practically next door to Paris. For hundreds of years French Mediterranean towns and monasteries fortified themselves against Turkish pirates (who mostly never showed up). Algerian pirates, who were thought of generically as “Turks,” occasionally plundered the Irish coast. Once, a bunch of them even raided Iceland! Following his naval debacle at the Bay of Abukir, Napoleon brought Mamelukes, Turkish mercenary troops from Egypt, back to Europe. He used them as a weapon of terror against the insurgent Spaniards, a fact memorialized by Goya in his Tres de Mayo. In this atrocity painting, only the Spanish victims, who seem to be appealing to the viewer, have human faces. The Mameluke execution squad is shown from the rear, like a many-backed beast.
Twenty years later, the European aristocracy reveled in taking the side of Greek independence fighters against Turkish tyranny. (Lord Byron, the celebrated English poet indirectly died of it.) Ottoman power responded to the Greek insurrection with several well-publicized massacres. The most famous, the Massacre at Chios, depicted by my namesake Delacroix (Eugene), remains one of the great masterpieces of war propaganda. The painting displays in one tight space mass slaughter, including that of babies; rape; rapine; and the haughty indifference of the cruel Turk. In a perverse turn of mind, the artist made the central figure, an Ottoman horseman with saber in hand, disturbingly handsome. (I have to resist the temptation to see the painting as an early instance of soft-core porn, catering to a sadistic streak.)
Naturally, until recently, I did not know much that was favorable about Turkish society, or Turks, except that they had kept a silent, humble, and effective guard on the soft southern flank of Europe during the long years of the Cold War. Now, a disclaimer: in this story, I deliberately avoid any mention of the two massacres of Armenians, in the late 1800s, and an even worse one, in 1915–1916, because I am convinced that ordinary contemporary Turks know nothing of these events, or don’t quite grasp them. Similarly, I circumvent the on-going Kurdish rebellion in eastern Turkey and its often severe repression, because I wish to write only about the things I have seen, heard, or touched myself. My circumspection in these matters does not imply denial or affirmation.
The European aristocracy reveled in taking the side of Greek independence fighters against Turkish tyranny. Lord Byron indirectly died of it.
In the early 2000s, my wife and I took the night ferry across the Aegean from Piraeus, Greece, to Turkey. My first sighting of the blood-red Turkish national flag in the early morning somehow gave me a surge of adrenalin, a pleasant one. After the persnicketiness, the somberness, and the surliness we had experienced for two days in Athens, the Turks’ smiling warmth was more than welcome. (Why do I think Greeks hold the world’s per capita record, ahead of Argentina, for burning American flags?) But in spite of these good feelings, I was on my guard. I was born and reared in Europe. After all, I did not know how many of my great-aunts and great-grand-aunts their great-grandfathers had kidnapped to serve the obscene pleasures of the Turks’ harems.
We traveled along the Mediterranean coast in comfortable air-conditioned buses, stopping where fancy dictated, armed with our American Express card, like a new breed of aging but prosperous hippies. At every stop, as I stepped off the bus, older men, fellow-passengers, would compete for the privilege of lighting my cigarette with their invariably gold-plated lighters. Many smiles were exchanged, but conversations remained rudimentary, because the brevity of the stops made it difficult to overcome the fact that we did not have even half a language in common.
One morning stop seemed to last abnormally long, much beyond the necessities of bodily evacuation and two cups of strong muddy coffee, with cigarettes, for the driver. Previously, I had exchanged a few sentences with a 20-year-old girl who seemed eager to practice her English. She was a slight, skinny young woman with a pretty face. She wore a light cotton dress of sober color. Soon she became highly agitated, making loud and shrill pronouncements in Turkish that I did not understand, of course. I did not think she was exactly crazy, since we had had a placid and courteous conversation moments before, while the bus was still running. Nevertheless, she acted like a mad person. The other passengers were smiling patiently, while the driver seemed to be taking half a catnap.
In a perverse turn of mind, the artist made the central figure, an Ottoman horseman with saber in hand, disturbingly handsome.
Suddenly, the thin girl stepped forward and shoved the burly, middle-aged driver out of his seat. She met with no resistance and no protest. She sat in his place and pounded the loud road-horn as hard as she could. Presently we all saw, across the parking lot, a tall young man scurrying toward our bus. He was clutching a small plastic shopping bag to his chest. The girl leaped out the door like a mountain goat and ran toward the young man. She grabbed him brutally and frog-marched him to the bus on the double. When they were both inside, she managed to close the bus door by herself. I was alarmed, but the other passengers and the driver were still smiling.
The young man was athletic-looking and two heads taller than the girl. He looked to me like a deeply embarrassed 18-year-old. Shouting at the top of her lungs, the girl began to strike him across the face with all her strength. Back and forth she went, bitch-slapping him in front of everyone. Although I am a burly, strong man with a fondness for blood sports, the sound of her hand on his face made me wince. Had I been at home, I would have surely intervened to protect the boy against her fury. But the other passengers were still smiling, although by now a little fixedly.
She pummeled him for half an eternity, all the while ranting and raging as loudly as I have ever heard a woman scream. (And believe me, without boasting, I have a lot of experience with angry women.) The victim made no move to defend, or even to protect, himself. After a little while, as she was still beating him, her voice began to change; it became less loud and her tone turned softer. (Remember that I understood not a word of what she was shouting.) Soon, she was whimpering on his chest and stroking the cheeks she had been battering seconds before. She pulled him down into their seats and cradled his head in her arms while whispering what were obviously sweet nothings into his ear. The engine started, the bus rolled out of the parking lot, the passengers resumed their conversations. The two young people were soon napping cheek to cheek.
Suddenly, the thin girl stepped forward and shoved the burly, middle-aged driver out of his seat.
Later, she apologized to us in English for her outburst, and she explained: the tall young man was her adored little brother. They were traveling together from an inland city to their uncle’s home in a pretty coastal town (where my wife and I were heading, ourselves). The brother had asked her for permission to go buy a bathing suit in a shop adjoining the bus stop. He took too long because he could not find his size, so he wandered away, with all their money. She had panicked, fearful that the bus would abandon him in the unknown town. Hence her delayed wrath when she became sure that the worst was not going to happen.
The most striking part of the episode was the seemingly perfect equanimity of the other passengers. It told me of their tolerance for lateness and of their confidence that the matter would have a happy denouement. The young woman chatted some more with my wife and me. She was trustful, insatiably curious, and charming as a songbird. We would have adopted her on the spot if it had been possible.
Soon, we reached our destination, a perfectly lovable sea town, like St. Tropez must have been 50 years ago. The blue Aegean was dotted with gaily painted little boats, as in the postcards; fresh fish were frying in all the restaurants, and not a luxury store anywhere. You could not even have bought a latte for its weight in gold, thank God!
The next day was market day. If you are a serious traveler, you never miss open-air markets. They are invariably pleasurable as well as educational. All the women there, in that Turkish market, were from the interior of the country, and all were wearing broad, long, flowing, so-called “harem pants.” An older lady crossed our path wearing such pants, silky ones, with a black on gray subtle motif my wife immediately liked. You know what to do, I told my wife. (A long time earlier, I had demonstrated to her that it was possible to buy a woman’s clothes from her ten minutes after meeting her.) But at first, she demurred.
Older Turkish men are terrific liars. Men obviously in their early sixties would announce on their fingers: I am 83. I am 86. I will be 92 next year.
I saluted the gray-haired lady and expressed to her with gestures that my wife admired her pants. She took us to a stall that sold an inferior version of the same item. No, I insisted with a smile, she wants yours. To tell all, I was a little concerned that she might misunderstand me to be proposing to her that the three of us perform exotic acts together. But what we wanted soon seemed to dawn on her. I guessed she was a bit shocked but also intrigued. Soon, several other market women joined us, and a little girl who had a bit of school English. When the female passel disappeared behind a truck, I discreetly stepped away.
I walked around; to waste time, I bought a brass pepper grinder. I guessed that my wife understood men well enough to find me, eventually. I made my way to the tea stall in the middle of the market. Soon, several wide-eyed boys surrounded me. Then, one at a time, older men joined me on the benches that were set out in the open. Each one of them offered me a cigarette, and each tried to buy me a glass of tea. Seeing no toilet anywhere, I declined the tea each time with a big smile and a hand on my heart.
Are you married? One asked. How many children? Do you have pictures? Here are mine. And, finally: how old are you? I told the truth, as usual. One by one, they felt my biceps, then my thighs. I asked each politely, one by one, how old he was. As it happens, older Turkish men are terrific liars. Men obviously in their early sixties would announce on their fingers: I am 83. I am 86. I will be 92 next year. Then they took turns blustering about how good they looked for their age. It took all my willpower to refrain from challenging each and every one of the old bastards to an arm-wrestling match, just to teach them a little humility.
Subsequently, every mature Turkish man I met who was not trying to sell me a rug displayed precisely the same kind of loud vanity. I am guessing it keeps them young. It certainly beats the despicable Western custom of old geezers casually competing with one another about who has the worse health problems. Give me a braggart every time over a whiner!
No American visitors in Turkey this summer, they said. Tell the Americans to come back. We love them. Not like the fucking Europeans.
At that point, we got into the meat of things: American, yes? Yes, I confirmed. Bush? The oldest man asked with a raised eyebrow. I lifted my conservative thumb. He replied immediately: Bush, good! Saddam . . . He drew his hand across his throat. Exactly! I confirmed eagerly. (The American intervention in Iraq was about three months old then. Hussein was hiding in a dirt hole.) There were smiles all around. The fact is that I was sitting in the middle of a cluster of Muslims while my liberal academic colleagues were prudently visiting Paris, or Florence, or London. That is, the ones who had the gonads to travel overseas at all, that warlike summer.
Then, a young man who knew some English was drafted by one of the old guys. He told me the men wanted to know my opinion of the probability that Turkey would eventually be admitted into the European Union. Turkey, I answered sincerely, might just as well apply right away to the North American Free Trade Association (NAFTA). They were interested. One thing led to another. After a while, finding me so well informed, they somehow made the assumption that I must be a man of some influence in the US. No American visitors in Turkey this summer, they said. Tell the Americans to come back. We love them. Not like the fucking Europeans: they come here with one hundred euros and they think they are kings. (Don’t ask me how I know they used the expletive. I just know. It sounds the same in every tongue, anyway.)
An hour had passed and I was vaguely and only very slightly worried about my wife. I did not think there was any danger, but it was not like her to stay away, because she is the kind of person who gets lost between our house, where we have lived for ten years, and the corner grocery store. I called over a couple of 12-year-olds (who may have been 25, according to Turkish males’ general apprehension of reality), and I borrowed a gold-plated fountain pen from one of the old men. On a paper bag, I drew a chesty female silhouette and pounded my own (flat) chest. Wife of mine, I said. My wife is from India. Hindi! I added. Everyone commented favorably on my artistic talent (I guessed).
One of many wonders of globalization is that all around the less-developed world many people know and love Bollywood movies. “Hindi” struck a chord. I gave the boys one million liras each and sent them searching, paper bag drawing in hand. (What with inflation, a million liras does not buy nearly as much as it used to!) I wished them well in my heart, hoping they would not get into trouble inspecting too closely the bosoms of all and every woman at the market.
I located my wife, eventually. She had traded the old lady’s beautiful used harem pants against two new ones, plus one for each of three other women present at the negotiation, plus a whole outfit for the little girl who had acted as an interpreter. But the pants she had acquired were truly magnificent! (My wife has many wonderful qualities and enormous talent, but a wily bargainer, she is not.)
One of many wonders of globalization is that all around the less-developed world many people know and love Bollywood movies.
The transaction completed at last, she had failed to find me, she said. This, although I was in the middle of the market, surrounded by a small but noisy crowd. Instead, guided by some obscure female atavism, against all precedents, she had decided to walk back to the hotel by herself. She was in her fifties at the time. Tall and thin, but curvy, with the gray and black, silky harem pants streaming around her long legs and her narrow hips, she must have cut a striking figure in the eyes of dozens of appreciative Turkish male spectators on the way. If this was her last huzzah, she could not have chosen a better venue; bless her heart!
Later that evening, we walked the promenade on the seafront. We bumped into the young woman from the bus and her tall little brother. She embraced my wife and kissed her on both cheeks. Then she did the same with me. She pushed her brother forward and he kissed both of us too. We invited them for ice-cream. They sat with us but would not let us pay, because the sweets kiosk belonged to their uncle who would never, not ever, forgive them if we touched the check.
I don’t mean to deny centuries of European perception, or any part of history. Yet, I have to report my own experience. This, then, was my own personal encounter with Turkish savagery.