“Are you married?”
I answered the question more than once, and in more than one way.
To the shoeshine boy on Galata Bridge, on my first night in Istanbul, I perhaps unwisely answered “No. I’m not married.” He almost dragged my foot off the pavement towards him. I should have worn trainers. I do not want my shoes polished by anyone other than myself, even if, and this was the case on Galata, the polisher happens to be stunningly handsome. But I hate trainers.
“Do you have children?”
“I’m not married.” I repeat, as if marriage is the only way of begetting.
“My child is sick in hospital; I have no money for the operation.” This is possible, I decide, but unlikely.
He had insisted that the shoeshine would cost a mere three Camel Lights. I offered the pack and a decent amount of change. Now I don’t mind being trapped in conversation with a handsome man, any handsome man. I don’t object to a little bartering, a negotiation. But I do object to being told of the plight of a sick child within minutes of an acquaintance, and that only dollars, pounds or Turkish lira notes would suffice for this, the unwanted shoeshine.
Any underlying offer to me, the unmarried and the childless me, was by this stage totally out of the question. I finally regained control of my foot and hurried on. That side of the Galata was already off my map.
“Are you married?” asked the welcoming academic.
I’m not used to this question in London, I realise. Certainly not as a first question. After a few days I came to expect the question, almost irrespective of the speaker. What I thought might be about sex turned out to be mostly, I think, about succession.
“Are you married?” asked the café acquaintance.
“Do you have any children?”
“Two. My daughter is doing very well at university, sometimes I wish she would settle.”
A knowing nod greets my answer.
“My son, he’s a little older, in banking.”
“He says he likes his freedom …”
Even the friendly and ancient couple, who spent a good ten minutes explaining the way, ended their massive attempt at English, in response to my five words of Turkish, with the very same questions.
The handsome boy on the ferry with a red rose. He caught my eye. There was many an empty seat. He chose to sit next to me.
“Single” I answered, almost before the question.
“Do you have a girlfriend?”
“No, not at the moment.”
“You like to play? I like to play …”
Too direct. I tried to change topic, asked him about his life. He liked to meet tourists, girls especially.
Later I saw him on Galata, in hot pursuit of two very pretty Scandinavian backpackers. The girls ignored him.
I bought a bag, a shoulder bag; I was attracted by the red lettered labels by every zip.
Alone . At last a brand I can identify with.
Alone. Sad and lonely?
Alone. Leave me alone.
Alone. I want to be alone.
Alone. I’m available.
But I’m not coming out again, not in 2006, not at my age. There is the c.v. problem though, if I want to go there again, find work, and I do. Pornography, prostitution, Sodom, a gay teacher’s story, a hundred years of voyeurism in virtual reality. A couple of family films, one a Muslim family, but the overwhelming impression is undeniable. The c.v. is in need of a drastic revision. As I look to the mosques of Istanbul, like giant, immobile, beautiful beetles bearing candles, I think, “Shred the c.v.”
I must work on the lives of my children.
In Turkey, in the shadow of the mosque, or under the ever-present stone gaze of Atatürk. To do an Atatürk , is, I am told, to get drunk.
I am told.
There is a Turkish tense, a tense that relates to stories, rumours, and a tense of unreliable evidence. It might be said, rumour has it. Hearsay, gossip. A tense used in old wives’ tales, fairy stories. It can refer to an indefinite past, things lost in the midst of time. Talking behind someone’s back. All the things you said, all the things you reported about me. I want to live in this tense, to adapt and adopt it. I imagine myself being spoken of only in this tense.
Some questions were welcome, questions I avoid in London
“What do you do?”
“I’m a teacher.” Or
I could avoid saying that I write. Avoid “What do you write about?” or worse, “Would I have read something by you?” Given that the chances of a “yes” to the latter are minimal, you are then expected to explain the content of your writing.
In Istanbul either answer seemed fine. Both met with an unreserved approval.
I was there for a conference on “life writing”, a chance to observe Turkish teachers. Three generations of women teachers, greeting, hugging, kissing. The discreet erotics of education. Another succession? A warm and chosen one at least. An immense affection, Atatürk approved perhaps. There was a children’s day in his name when I was there, every schoolyard festooned. He gazes over every assembly hall. I’m told you can’t insult him, any more than you can insult Allah. There’s a law against it. You can argue with him though, on good political grounds. I can cope with that. There is a sense of caution, a whole history of the military, the faith, and the state.
Still, you don’t see many teachers kiss students in London, even on the cheeks.
Those who escape both Allah and Atatürk, the writers? There are poets everywhere in Istanbul. People showed me their poems. I read hand-written poems in bookshops, in colleges, in cafes. Some would show me their own work, others unearthed poems by their fathers, their grandfathers. A poetic succession. Sufi subversive mystic poems and wonderfully self-indulgent sorrows.
What do you do questions that I finally find I can answer with an unaccustomed lightness.
And then of course, the big question, the question of age, 54.
The mosque, perhaps, making age revered?
And as for Allah, I have the entirely fanciful notion that the “Allah” in “Hallam” will protect me.
I weave my fantasies around being old, a teacher and a writer in Istanbul. What the mosque might approve, what Atatürk might think fit. And ways of slipping round them both.
And I should go soon. Istanbul: cool city, the gay papers announce. Get away with gaytours. Go hard clubbing in Bodrum. Time it right and you might drop in on an oil wrestling festival. Groin grabbing oiled-up men illustrate the lightly disguised gay press; small print, “advertising feature.” The same photos everywhere on the web. Easyjet will make Istanbul a cheaper place to land. Some baggage is best left behind.
Two seas meet. The call to prayer, in Arabic, the Arabic once banned under Atatürk, interrupted by the even greater melancholy of ships’ horns. Every kind of boat, a solitary fisherman, a cruise liner, a military vessel, endless rusting and colossal containers, a pleasure boat, a ferry to take you home after work …
Watching boats, doubt anyone would question that. Everyone does it.
A writer, teacher, and someone who can help with English. I’ve rarely known a greater pleasure than patiently playing with words, explaining to a halting student. And my pleasure in not understanding much of the language that surrounds me.
Some erotics, no system seems able to tamper with.
I was invited to stay by three Turkish boys, none of them gay. One played classical Turkish music, when not doing a Hendrix. Music everywhere. The second was writing on Turkish-German hip-hop. The third taught English. He’d learnt much working in “Gallipoli”, Upper Street, London. Five minutes walk from where I’d lived for eight years. On arrival he was somewhat disturbed at the sight of men kissing in “Gallipoli”. He mentioned this to the manager. I laughed, as, he said, did the manager. Now, were the men to be shagging in the toilets, well that might be a problem. Later this too my new friend had seen, and he relaxed. Gallipoli, there’s a name to contend with. This one a restaurant.
He showed me his Sufi style story, beautiful. I could help with a phrase or two.
And Turkish boys meet Bulgarian girls on the Net. I know, I played intermediary, a Pandarus Paul, in a chat-room. I stayed well away from the webcam’s range, but soon the Turkish boy and Bulgarian girl were including me in their conversation. I made a guest appearance. That seemed odd enough, until I noticed her Mother stood behind her on her webcam.
My eyes burnt with the strain of watching and offering the odd English word, the only language they could connect in. I visited at least three chemists, to try to sort the problem, eye drops, or no eye drops. They were patient, careful and entirely divided in the diagnosis. The strain, an erotic strain, had no obvious cure. Bloodshot, do I play victim, look a bit sad and left out? Hold my hand across my face? I considered a patch. Struck blind by looking, a curse in many a culture, updated for the chat-room cruise.
“I was robbed within minutes of arriving in Istanbul.” I pause to watch the disappointed, even shocked look on the face of a new Turkish friend.
I was robbed by an ugly suburban sudoku playing Englishman. A brief attempt at conversation had failed on the flight. He settled into his puzzles, not even looking out of the window as we landed in Istanbul. I was struggling to learn those five words of Turkish and left my guidebook on the seat as I tried to find my hand-luggage; family travelers had clearly pushed me further down the plane
Returning to my seat, the man and the book had gone, I pursued him in baggage reclaim (I had nothing to reclaim but my book). But he had gone. The visit had begun, Istanbul without a map.
The route from Atatürk Airport was complex, the lost guidebook had explained. I decided on a cab. Passing the grey dogs, the steps, the run-down backstreets, poor stores, all manner of boxes and electrical goods, within minutes of the most spectacular square I could ever have imagined. And a hotel room, I’d pleaded my birthday to be taken from the back to a front room. A room that looked out over the old Sirkeci Station, of Orient Express fame no less. And ashtrays provided. Two seas, panoramas of the city. Love at first sight and then the wander, dustily shod, to the Galata Bridge and the shoeshine encounter.
Without a map, except for Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories of the City. Wrongly translated, I’m told. It should read, Istanbul: Memories and the City, a different thing entirely. The first, most obvious, response to the grey and grand city, to the sense of decay, a melancholia. Sensed by visitors as well as the bred and born. A city’s melancholia, hüzün, Pamuk explains. I could settle on a hüzün Hallam identity. But within days I was arguing with this great hymn to melancholy, to hüzün. From hüzün Hallam, to a very happy Hallam, unburdened with an Ottoman past.
Pamuk, 54, remembering his life and the city, me, at 54, like a virgin, touched for the very first time. Senses set reeling, and little sign of Starbucks.
I lie, I’m quite taken by the boys at the university, in pale brown Nescafe jackets, smiling, in poorly paid jobs, sweeping the floor as you walk, manning the urns, sorting your every technical need. The smiles seemed genuine, the work not arduous, the time to joke with each other unrestricted.
And there was a student protest at Boğaziçi University. Well, there were two. The first, a protest against nuclear weapons. That I have seen before, and been a part of. The second was a protest against Lipton’s Tea. I have been at many a protest, but never this one. A concession. We can do our own free tea on a student campus, thank you very much. The students set up their own, free tea stall.
Turkey knows how to do tea, do coffee.
And it certainly knows how to do hospitality. How to make you feel embarrassed and awkward, since whatever you offer is refused! You are a guest, you are constantly reminded. Well the boys allowed me to be the bringer of lager, a Brit specialty, a six pack of Efes.
To be taken in, more important than to be taken (well, I am 54).
Hosts and hospitality, an underlying theme of the Sodom, my melancholy city story. To be taken in, and welcomed, or to be fooled. I wasn’t taken in by the shoeshine boy. I wasn’t taken by the boy with the single rose. Hospitality, its pleasure and its threat. The threat to my bag of Alone.
A new way for me if I move there, a certain manners then. I know I can’t insult Islam. And I know to take care with Atatürk. Oddly enough I have no desire to insult either. My insults tend to be much more local and personal. But there is that succession of successions to contend with. I can deal with that, I think, but I am not sure.
“Did you go for a Turkish bath?” friends asked me.
“No.” I reply, thinking there are some clichés it is best to avoid.
But I did go for a haircut.
A local haircut, accompanied by a new friend. He settled to his papers, watching and translating, whenever the need arose.
Teas were brought, not something you get in London.
The haircut was periodically interrupted, by the barber’s friends dropping by.
One was pleased to see an Englishman in the chair and decided to test his own vocabulary. He wanted to know how to chat up English girls on the beach. This is not my specialty, but I made a few attempts at suitable phrases.
He was trying English out, I was still too nervous to attempt my by now ten words of Turkish.
Much laughter and a half hour passed. More tea.
Suddenly and without warning, the barber’s hands were on my shoulders, on my arms, on the tips of my fingers. Click went the tip of every finger.
With translator’s help I was able to say that this was unusual for me. In London you would be asked before anyone touched your neck and fingertips, and of course, if you wanted the massage, charged extra.
The barber thought this strange.
“But in the rich West, why don’t you get the best haircut”
“In the rich West you would do six haircuts in the time you have taken over one.”
He quietly registered my translated remark.
Answered with a towel, the talc, the perfume.
I kept trying to approach the mosques
There were men in the courtyards, lined up in rows, and sometimes in circles, well-dressed, washing their feet before entering. Stone, water, flesh.
I had no problem with the “leave your shoes” or “place them in carrier bags and pick them up as you leave” signs, all polite, all in English. Except, how could it be possible that this still needed to be explained?
And at my somewhat secular new friends’ house, though told it was not important, I preferred to leave my shoes in the hall, wearing whatever slippers were near to feet.
I’ve had the problem before, what to do as you enter a Roman Catholic church, where others freely dip their hands in holy water and make the sign.
But the sight of those naked feet.
Sometimes I just want to linger.
Even to ask a few questions myself.
At last I am a part-time teacher here, I have been government approved.
The students ask me, “Are you married?” “Do you have any children?” I answer, “No.”
- Do you want a Turkish girlfriend?
- How old are you?
- Which team do you support in London?
- Which team in Turkey?
- What religion are you?
It’s not just the students. I can see staff thinking who they might arrange for me to meet. The carefully choreographed dinner.
The assumption is that the woman would be younger than me.
I am perplexed. Surely in this day and age, and with that degree of nosiness, they could check the Net? Facebook, Amazon, IMDB? Would they really think my interests, as they appear out there, are purely academic? Can they not put two and two together?
I am told that such questions are really just polite, much like asking about the weather.
Have they done the check already and consider it impolite to mention it?
Students greet me with warmth and comedy. They clear desk space for me in the classroom; they dive to pick up anything I might drop. They dust chalk from my jacket, offer tissues at the slightest sign of a sniff.
They vie to sit next to me, for many their first English acquaintance. They often tell me that they love me.
“You do not love me, you love me as a teacher” as an American colleague replies. I add that such love might be illegal in England and hope they do not get my humour.
I am asked by a Turkish colleague to explain the marriage customs in my country to her class.
I go through “the big day” as experienced by many in a church or at a registry office. I am asked by the teacher “what the word is” for a marriage that is for reasons other than love. I try to explain the differences between an arranged marriage and a marriage of convenience.
And that the marriage customs in “that London”, as a relative refers to it, are as many and varied as the religions or the lack of.
And that over 40 percent of London’s population is now “single” and we do not ask “Are you married?” on first meeting …
I continue to talk with the students. So many in London choose not to marry, and to remain childless. They might simply like being single, they might even be “gay”. Women and women, men and men, I add, by way of explanation.
They might choose to celebrate a “civil partnership”. That’s a hard one to explain, even to myself.
Coming out, staying in. Or “stopping in” as we say in Mansfield, where I am from.
I pause, almost waiting for the “Sir, is it true that you’re a queer … that you’re bent …?”
One or two of the students here look confused.
Is this a language problem? Is it from indifference, unfamiliarity with the “gay” word, astonishment or acceptance? Foreigners have their ways and they are weird anyway, after all.
But if one of them asks …?
Could I bring myself, like Jim, to say “Yes, it’s true …?” Would I want to? I know the story would spread and run, the College is Beykoz Lojistic, it is not an art college in the Soho-esque European side, it is not in Beyoglu/Taksim.
And if I answered, “Yes”?
Would the warmth and affection melt away? And even if it didn’t, might I not simply get bored, going over this, over it and over it again?
I could have no choice. BFI DVDs are much copied here and on sale at knock-down prices.
I might, I realise, be forced out by a pirate.
© Paul Hallam
Istanbul. February 14th , 2009. Saint Valentine’s Day. Much celebrated here; it has been declared a “no exam” day at College. In the Shadow of the Mosque is an excerpt from a new book and film project.