Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Elegantly Dressed Wednesday: Christina Fallin of Pink Pony

Nurtan and Aida

Ben and I both were becoming more aware of the great chasm between appearance and reality in Istanbul.  First, I dated Hakkan, who was very likely gay and yet was going out with me as if I were his girlfriend. Now, Ben was dating Nurtan, who claimed to be religious  and yet was dating an obviously married man. Even more surprising, Nurtan had an American ex-boyfriend, whom she had kept a secret from her parents for the last two years, and she was apparently no longer a virgin.

I remembered what Mustafa and his friend Elif had said about women's virginity in Turkish culture. Both agreed that religious Turkish women who were not virgins faced all matter of hardships if they wanted to live an independent life from their parents. Marriage was still the best alibi for a young woman who wanted to be free of her parents' watchful gaze. She did not want to marry her American boyfriend, and she also didn't want to marry a religious Turkish man who shared no interests with her, and then she met Ben, a married literature professor who wrote poetry and seemed the perfect candidate to understand her.

My sympathy for  Nurtan rose again once I saw her in a photograph of a Gokhan departmental picnic. She was wearing the headscarf and a thick pair of clunky glasses. She had olive skin, dark eyebrows and small features. She did not smile but rather she stared piercingly at the camera, looking desperately unhappy. As it turned out, Nurtan was just an interim girlfriend before the next one, a pretty young Kazan sociology student named Aida who was also infatuated with Ben.

She was a petite and young looking 24. She still spoke nostalgically of her summer in Orlando, Florida working for Disneyworld. Her parents were nominally Muslim but not overbearingly strict with her. She spoke contemptuously of Turkish men, said men on the street talked to her like she was a prostitute when they heard she was from the former Soviet republic. Many prostitutes in Istanbul were from the smaller republics of the former Soviet Union. In fact, they had a nickname for such women: "Natashas," as if everyone with this common Russian name sold her body for money.

When Aida lost her temper online, the solemn and dignified way in which she defended her personhood impressed upon me that she was a strong personality who would not stand by and be wronged without a fight.

This impression I had of her as someone not to be crossed was further bolstered when a year after my return to the States, she contacted me. She wanted to know what she could do to make Ben lose his job at Gokhan University. He had lived with her for seven or eight months and then out of the blue he had gone back to his wife. This second time around I opted not to get involved. I didn't want to make anyone lose his job and certainly not Ben. Even though we were no longer friends, there was nothing I wanted to do to harm Ben. At the same time, I never wanted to see him harm others, especially not young women living in a culture that adamantly did not accept women's premarital or extramarital sexuality.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

"Depending on the quality of exchange..."


My memories of that last year in Istanbul are still relatively clear. I can make out the emotions conveyed through faces, but I can't quite see their composition, how the parts fit the whole. My feelings about living in the city worsened in the winter when the tourists no longer came in such high numbers. The energy on the streets was more negative. It was in the winter when a cab driver refused to drop me at my apartment building. He stopped the taxi on a dead-end street in the early evening and demanded that I pay about twice the going rate for the 10 minute drive from Besiktas to Cihangir. If it had been late at night, I might have been scared, but as the incident occurred, I remember being surprised more than anything else, surprised that I had been unlucky because most of my cab drivers had been nice. I can't remember whether I paid him the extortionate sum he demanded. I think that I didn't since I recall hearing the screeching of tires as he drove off, furious that his demand had not been met.

The most frightening of these exchanges precipitated my decision to move back to the United States.I was about five or six months pregnant, not yet showing, although the pregnancy by then was longstanding to me. I had gone to my office on game day and wanted to walk a little from the university, along the Bosphorus towards Cihangir, before getting on the bus to go home. Besiktas game days were chaotic and there were often injuries. My office mate's sister broke an arm at a Besiktas game when she got caught in a chanting, moving crowd between the stands and the exit gates of the stadium.

Walking towards Dolmabahce Palace, I could hear the fans chanting. They chanted inside the stadium and outside on the nearby streets, traveling in packs of three and four. Their chants made them sound like meatheads, impersonating what they believed real men were supposed to sound like. They faked deep baritone voices and tried to sing like one another. If I were being charitable, I would say they came off as a little immature, but most of the time I thought of them as proles, reminiscent of the proles in Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four who so enthusiastically participated in Two Minute Hate and Hate Week, where they could be whipped into a frenzy against the enemies of the state. Only for the Besiktas fans, the enemies of the state were the fans of other Istanbul soccer teams like Fenerbahce, Galatasaray, and Kasimpasa.

Mustafa never understood my disdain for these traveling packs of chanting idiots. He supported Besiktas and even bought Vera a Besiktas jersey, which she wore a few times during that last trip to Istanbul, but which she has never put on since that time.  The jersey was black and white stripes and reminded me of the old prison inmate shirts, except the stripes were vertical rather than horizontal. His unwavering support for Besiktas was intricately bound up with his working class, leftist identity. If I really wanted our own alliance to end permanently, I would have dug in my heels and said I favored Fenerbahce, the capitalist team that symbolized the enemy to him.

(To be continued, "Depending on the quality of exchange..." part 2)

Monday, July 28, 2014

"Depending on the quality of exchange," part 2

Despite the large crowds, I decided to get on the bus at Dolmabahce Palace. As I paid the bus fare, I looked back and saw a short man with black hair, angry, dark eyes and a mustache pushing his fare money into the coin slot directly behind me. His hands were almost touching mine, and I remember thinking, "Back off!" I moved in as far as I could without having to touch another passenger. Some passengers were still pushing to reach the exit doors in the middle of the bus. Others were pushing from the front of the bus to get to a handhold in the aisle.

"Git!" I heard the man say.

"Git" is the familiar form of the imperative for the verb "to go." His rudeness alarmed me since adult strangers usually use the formal with one another. It was that man again and he was right behind me, pushing me. I saw a metal bar, probably for securing luggage, at midriff level, and that angry man was pushing behind me, pushing my stomach toward the bar. In my head I yelled back at him, "No, don't push me. I'm pregnant. The baby!" Simple words to say in Turkish, and I could not utter a one. My Turkish left me completely. I could have gestured to my stomach and said in English, "baby," and every Turk would have understood, but I could not say anything. I was frozen and crying from frustration.

I don't recall what happened to him, but I remember shouting, "Pardon!," and locking my hands together in front of my stomach to squeeze through the passengers now blocking the middle exit doors.

Next thing I knew I was off the bus and still in Besiktas.

The traffic looked to be in gridlock in all directions, around the stadium, through Nisantasi, and along the Bosphorus, a route that was the least friendly to pedestrians due to ongoing road construction and occasionally dark sections en route.

I walked at least two miles up the steep streets that went around the stadium to Taksim Square. At Taksim I could have found a cab, but even that would have been useless -- to sit in traffic with the taxi driver when I could have walked the distance from Cihangir to Tophane on a downhill, well-lit and familiar street.

Ben and his friends from Gokhan University were drinking nearby. (This was just before the AKP put the kibosh on outdoor drinking.) It was an unusually muggy February night, and the three of them, one professor and two students, were giddy from an afternoon and a night of revelry. Ben's university did not  hold classes on Fridays because Fridays were mosque days, so what did the Western professor do: got drunk with the foreign students. I was beginning to feel squeamish about Ben's close relationship with all these kids who were close to fifteen years younger than he was.

Mainly, I was just concerned for the growing being in my stomach. I never wanted to get on another bus again. What had happened to me? My inability to speak almost hurt my child. What other dangers would I not be able to adequately face without my ability to convey my thoughts to those around me? I felt almost completely helpless, and the drunken scene that surrounded me only reiterated that Vera and I were standing on the most unstable, earthquake prone land in Istanbul. God, please just let the baby be full term and healthy and I'll be faithful again, like I was when I was a girl.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The dreams, part 3

The dreams since we have lived in Texas involve accidents. Vera falls from a tall building as I watch from the ground floor. Her small body cascades down, and I am helpless to stop her fall. Other such nightmares involve her running out into Istanbul traffic and being hit by a car. Without a doubt the worst dream is that of Vera falling from a tall building. In that dream we have moved back to Istanbul and we live with Mustafa in a high rise apartment outside of the city.

In the dream, as I watch her fall, I know she will not survive and I also know I am to blame. We should never have come back to Turkey, and I should never have trusted Mustafa to care for her.

We arrived in Istanbul in late May of last year. The weather was not quite hot yet, but getting there. By the end of our trip, we were sweltering in his sunny, top floor apartment, and yet I still insisted on keeping the sliding glass door locked. I even set a chair in front of the door, so that Vera could not unlock that door. It was an irrational fear because even I sometimes had trouble unhitching the lock. I had to pull the glass towards me and lift the hitch at the same time.

The apartment was spacious and clean, with high ceilings, my IKEA white and green furniture, and a beautiful view of the Asian side of the Bosphorus. It was located in the semi-gentrified Tophane district, where art galleries flank mosques and the uber-religious mix uneasily with urban hipsters and Westerners visiting the mythic city for the summer. It was also on the sixth floor of a six story building, and the view of the Bosphorus could only be seen by stepping out onto the balcony. Looking down, I could see small trees surrounding a red tile courtyard. A two-year-old would not survive a fall from that balcony onto such a courtyard.

My place in this social collage was temporary and elevated because of my new identity as a mother of a two-year-old daughter. A mother holds a respected place in Turkish society in a way that a career woman simply does not. The same covered women who may have whispered hurtful gossip about the gavur now viewed me through another prism, through the lens of the almost young mother with a young daughter in tow.

This shift in treatment also changed the way I saw the country itself. What in the world had I been complaining about? The old silly dichotomies began to run through my head again: "Turks are warm and generous, and Americans are cold and money-grubbing." "Turks value family whereas Americans focus only on success." After four years of this back and forth, my assessments of the virtues and vices of each culture continued to shift dramatically, depending on the quality of exchange I had had with real people on those random occasions on the streets of Istanbul.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A permanent solution to a temporary problem

Last year's trip to Turkey came on the heels of a long and difficult year at Ignatius College. For the first few months, Vera, who had never been to daycare before I started the new job, had a whole slew of illnesses--ear infections, rotavirus, colds, and other ailments. In fact, after two follow-up visits and a couple of medication adjustments, our general practitioner recommended we see an ear, nose and throat specialist to find out why her ear infections had not cleared up yet.

The nurse at the specialist's office gave her hearing tests in a small, dark booth. Vera and I sat in the booth and waited for the first sounds. Not immediately, but soon after that, one side of the booth lit up as a smiling elephant waved and said hello from the lit corner. Then, the other side of the booth lit up and a doll said, "Good day!" from that corner. We were then ushered into a doctor's office and were asked to wait for the doctor to arrive. After a long wait in a cold doctor's office, the ear specialist arrived. Vera was going stir-crazy, playing with the step ladder and anything else that was within reach, and he reacted pleasantly enough to her inability to sit still. He did not stay long. He simply reviewed her case, saying only that her hearing was mildly affected by the ear infections, and recommended a follow-up visit in six weeks.

At the follow-up visit, six weeks later, the specialist surprised me by saying that  her ear infection had not gotten any better. He would recommend having tubes inserted to drain the ear. When I told Vera's teacher about it, she mentioned another child who had tube inserts and miraculously began speaking in full sentences a week later. Online in chat rooms and discussion forums many parents were excited about the positive results that came after the operation. Their children's moods improved. They spoke more and needed less coddling and reassurance.

That worried me: Vera was not talking too much, one word here, another word there. In fact, I had made a list of all the words she had ever uttered, counted the total and googled "21 months old how many words should she know?" I can't even remember the response I got now, but I know that it didn't calm my nerves. It was just so hard to say no to doctors because they were specialists and I looked up to them. I didn't want money to be a concern if the surgery would help my daughter to develop her language skills and feel less pain.

"A permanent solution to a temporary problem," this was how one prominent physician writing for the New York Times described tube inserts.

There were others in the comments section who corroborated the doctor's view that the potential dangers of inserting a tube to drain the fluid in the ears did not offset the rewards. One reader in the comments section offered a cautionary tale: She had had this surgery when she was a toddler and ever since then had suffered a ringing in her ears that never stopped.

We have not been back to the doctors nearly as often as in that first year in Texas. Apart from Vera's yearly physical and one trip to the clinic after she had swelling on her face from a bug bite, we have hardly visited any doctors at all. All of our physicians in Turkey were highly competent and highly empathic people and it was possible to have a relationship with them that felt meaningful and sincere. Yes, I was charged a fee for the service provided, but I felt that the service provided equaled, if not exceeded, the cost of the service. Unfortunately, this has not been my experience of doctors in the United States. The money issue for all medical situations in the United States makes such a relationship practically impossible. My impression is that doctors are not to be trusted. They are there to fleece you, and part of that fleecing involves pretending like they are there to help and that money should really not be an issue when it comes to your health.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The monster is pushed back

Vera's three-years-old by now -- a very determined, strong-willed and mischievous three-year-old. I have now raised her by myself for two years, and I have loved the experience of raising her on my own and getting to know how she thinks and what's important to her.

She is happiest right now when she's role playing. Most of her role-playing games involve a mama dog/car/rabbit/bear who is taking her baby dog/car/rabbit/bear to daycare. Often a mysterious monster arrives at the daycare and waits outside just after the mama drops her baby off. The daycare teacher has to call the unicorns from Equestria,
the idyllic land of horses from the television show My Little Pony, to come and save the daycare from the monster. At this point, Vera grabs one of her unicorn figurines, turns on her most intense laser-beam stare, and utters the angry, determined word, "ZHOOM!", meaning the magical powers from the unicorn horn are being released. The monster -- sometimes, a pen, other times, a stuffed animal -- is pushed back, away from the daycare, so the mama and daddy dogs/cars/rabbits/bears can arrive to pick up their babies.

She still does not acknowledge that Mustafa is her father even though I have told her at least a handful of times that she does have a father, and that he is it.

"That man scares me," she often says after the three of us have spoken on Skype.

Or more simply, "That's not my father."

Earlier in the summer, I had planned on going to Turkey with Vera again, but at a certain point I told Mustafa we would not be able to go.

The way he dragged his heels about how to pay for the ticket bothered me. At one point he said the money would be in my account that Monday, but come Monday there was no money there. This year I vowed to myself  I would not pay for the tickets before being reimbursed, not after last year, when for the longest time I had the cost of two tickets on my credit card statement, even though before leaving he had said clearly, "Don't worry about the costs. I'll pay for the flight, no problem." He did finally reimburse me for the cost of one ticket, but we had purchased two tickets and I still had that $900 charge on my account to deal with.

For as long as I have had Vera, my most recurrent dream has been to save enough for the down payment for a house, not a big house, but a house with hardwood floors and big windows and high ceilings. After more than a year, I still had only saved $900, a far cry from the $9,000 I would need to save for a house in Holly Lake Ranch.

Holly Lake Ranch is a gated community just about ten miles from my work at the college.  Mostly, retirees live there because it is too far from any cities where a young person could find a decent job. From what I understand, the neighboring town of Hawkins employs quite a few young men to do either demolition or more highly skilled welding or engineering work, but not nearly as many as it once did.

My biggest fear was that the trip to Turkey this year would cut into the small amount of savings I had managed to collect over the last year. If I could just keep my belt tightened, by the end of the summer, I might have almost $4,000 in my savings account. I had taught summer classes and I had done contract committee work for the College that had been arduous and time-consuming and involved much planning and coordinating of labor in order to get the task done. Vera and I had commuted from the trailer on Mrs. Annie's farm, in neighboring Mineola, fifty miles every day, and I had taught forty students, only ten of whom had bought the textbook. So way too much of my time this summer had been spent at the Academic Affairs copy machine, photocopying the relevant pages before class.