Issue 9

Uneasy in Istanbul

By Fahrinisa Oswald

I awoke with a coldness running through my veins and the hair on the back of my neck standing on end. My heartbeat was so loud it left a ringing in my ears and the adrenaline pumping through my body was starting to make my limbs tremble. The sound of choking, which I thought was only a nightmare, was actually coming from the bed on the other side of the room. As my mind raced to settle on a scenario - an intruder was choking my friend Cheryl to death was what I quickly came up with - and my body struggled to mobilise, I quietly reached for my phone and keys while trying to regulate my breathing.

Wishing desperately that my boyfriend had been sleeping next to me, or that a man also lived in this apartment, I knew that I would have to assume the strength that this situation required. My seemingly infallible plan was to shine the light from my phone in the direction of the ungodly noise and attack with my keys between my fingers like brass knuckles. In retrospect, I realize that these things really only make sense at three in the morning when your brain is not entirely functioning. For one, the light from my phone extends only about a foot, not to mention the fact that an intruder (probably male) would have several advantages on me, the most obvious of which would have been strength and, well, seeing me coming. Nevertheless, as I sprang forward tripping on anything and everything that was on the floor between my bed and hers, and landing with a crash at Cheryl’s bedside, I realized that no one was there. Yet the choking noises continued. Panicking even more, I switched on the bedroom light to discover that Cheryl was not in fact being strangled, but instead was having a seizure. I froze, unable to think what to do next. I was far more prepared for a physical encounter of some sort, or so I valiantly/naively thought, than for a medical emergency, and I had absolutely no idea what to do. Switching gears, I ran into the room next door to get my friend Kathy, in whose house I was staying.

As I approached Kathy’s bed in a state of panic, I felt as slow and uncoordinated as if I were in a nightmare and couldn’t run or talk fast enough. It didn’t occur to me to turn Kathy’s light on, in the same way that so many intelligent things didn’t occur to me that night, so instead I shook her gently while shining the light from my phone light directly in her face - again, these things make far more sense at 3am. Naturally, she awoke with a yelp at this phantom in the dark whisper-screaming at her, “I don’t know what to do, I don’t know what to do.” Obviously understanding that there must be some kind of emergency, she finally jumped out of bed and ran into the room where Cheryl was still having her seizure. In a classic ‘Three Stooges’ style approach, we tripped over my suitcase first, the fan next, and then finally each other while trying to reach her bed and control her seizing body. And of course, neither one of us knew how to handle what was happening, or the number for the ambulance, nor enough Turkish to explain to the hospital what was going on.

As the severity of the situation began to settle in, and the adrenaline began leaving my body, my movements became less controllable and it was becoming harder and harder to remain standing. At this inopportune moment, I wondered what a man would have done in my situation. How different this all would have been. Most certainly he wouldn’t be on the verge of fainting, but how terrified would he be, if at all? Is there something innate in a man’s physical and psychological make-up that makes him superior in dealing with emergencies? Granted, it wasn’t so much the seizure that was a shock, but rather having woken up at 3am to the sound of my roommate being murdered. Still, how would a man have reacted in my shoes?

Panic stricken and with very few options at our disposal, Kathy sent me dashing outside and up the stairs in my skimpy, pink Victoria’s Secret pyjama bottoms and transparent top to get her Turkish/American friend Dogan. As I unbolted the double locked door (intruders really had no chance of getting in), two thoughts shot through my head and then immediately vanished. First, Dogan was a man, and though this brought me a temporary feeling of relief, I was (and this was the second vanishing thought), not entirely appropriately dressed. This presented yet another layer to the already desperate situation. But, with no time to waste, sans bra and dishevelled almost beyond recognition, I drooped myself over the railing and hoisted myself up the stairs, one hand over the other. The issue of being inappropriately dressed for an early morning encounter with a Turkish man was a problem I would have to deal with later because, quite frankly, being seen in my scandalous pyjamas was far better than Cheryl being dead. In my physically drained state, making it up those stairs took precedence.

Finally reaching the landing, yet barely able to keep myself upright, I leaned against the wall and then Dogan’s door, and slowly slid to the floor in a helpless, motionless heap of shock. From my limp-noodle position on the floor, I was still able to reach his doorbell (monkey arms to the rescue!), which I rang for a good two minutes non-stop, while also feebly banging on the door, first with my knuckles and then with my forehead. Not a minute too late I realized that if Dogan ever actually came to the door and looked through the peephole, he would a) not be able to see me at all lying in a ball on the floor, or b) would see me and think that I was a new neighbour who came home drunk and mistook his door for mine.

Not wanting this mission to fail, I tried to right myself just enough to look not entirely insane or unconscious. As I heard footsteps approach the door, using the wall and doorknob for support, I was able to slide up the wall this time, standing hunched over, with my hands on my knees for support. Channelling what inner calm I had left in my reserves, I tried to speak through the door in the nicest, calmest voice I could muster. Unfortunately, I had also lost control of my speaking ability by this point, and everything that subsequently came out of my mouth was slurred. I was the perfect drunk neighbour, only I wasn’t drunk. I was in desperate need of help. I don’t know what part of my crazed appearance made Dogan open that door, because if I had been in his shoes, staring through the peephole at some foreign chick in her wife-beater top and hot pink short shorts plastered to the wall and slurring some nonsense about an emergency downstairs, I would not have opened the door. But, of all the people who could have lived above Kathy, Dogan, a bilingual ex-marine from California, was definitely what I would have chosen if God had asked me at that very moment. I knew from that point on that no matter what happened next, we would be fine.

Dogan immediately dashed past me and down the stairs, leaving me to my own resources. Half sliding, half stumbling, I made my way back to Kathy’s apartment, using the wall for support at all times. By the time I managed to crawl the rest of the way from the front door to the room, Dogan had propped Cheryl upright, bringing her out of the seizure. As he sat there holding her until she started to come to her senses, he also called the ambulance and chief of police, the second just for good measure I supposed. Minutes later, when the ambulance arrived, Cheryl was still unable to answer questions with anything other than a confused look. Still, everything seemed to be under control.

I don’t know if it was the fact that Dogan was an ex-US marine, or half Turkish and therefore fluent in the language and able to communicate with the outside world; if it was the fact that the chief of police was on his speed dial; or if it was the simple fact that he was a man, but I finally felt that I no longer had to be strong and keep it together - anyway, I had no choice; I had reached my saturation point by then. Or so I thought. I sat where I was, on the floor in the corner of the room, until someone told me to get dressed.

Minutes later we were all packed into the ambulance and heading to the hospital. Unable to hold my head upright, I leaned it against the window, watching the car lights as they flashed by. As one tear squeezed its way down my cheek, I immediately felt a sense of shame and disappointment. Why was I crying? This was not the time to cry, nor would it ever be the time to cry. I was a grown woman, and much stronger than this. But something was bothering me. Somehow, I secretly felt that I had let down my fellow females by being so grateful for a man’s presence during this emergency - I had certainly let myself down. In all of my feminist don’t-even-look-at-me-funny-or-I’ll-smash-your-face-in-and-spray-you-with-pepper-spray-while-slicing-your-private-bits-off-with-my-switchblade attitude, where had my courage and strength gone now - especially now, come to think of it? I had been given a chance to prove my inner and outer strength, and here I was fighting back the tears. How dare I be so vulnerable, or if I was going to be vulnerable, how dare I show it?

I had somehow forgotten what Turkish government hospitals looked like, having spent as little time as possible in them over the years, but the scene we walked into upon arrival was not comforting in the least. Tired, hungry and in an intense amount of shock, I dragged myself behind the doctors as they wheeled Cheryl into a room full of screaming and vomiting patients. Kathy and Dogan accompanied her but I was told a third person would not be allowed past the swing doors, so I turned back around and parked myself on a rickety waiting room chair. Somewhere between getting orange juice from the cafeteria to keep myself from fainting, and drifting in and out of an agitated sleep, I witnessed the ER turn from a quiet yet functioning place to one of absolute chaos. In the span of just a few minutes, security guards were shouting and rushing in every direction and it smelled of paint thinner and panic. A few guards were running with their shirts half on while others were soaked from head to toe for reasons unknown to me. For fear of my life I tried to run to where the doctors had taken Cheryl, but I was quickly redirected back to my seat by a massive, shirtless security guard. Like most of Turkish society outside the home, the ER was mostly a male crowd, and this one had just turned violent. I suddenly wished I had been watching this scene from behind the stifling grill of a burqa, invisible at least to whoever was there; or better yet, from behind those swing doors that led to where Kathy and Dogan were.

Just then Dogan came rushing towards me and with him, a wave of relief came washing over me. He quickly explained that in typical Turkish fashion, a family had attacked the doctor who had given them some bad news. This did not explain the soaked and shirtless security guards, or the pungent scent of paint thinner, however. Apparently, to top it all off, while most of the security guards were addressing the issue of the attack on the first floor, the Tinnergi - a boy who sniffs paint thinner for the cheap and dangerous high - who had been passed out in the waiting room when we arrived, had apparently suddenly snapped out of his unconscious state and jumped off the gurney he was lying on to attack the security guards and throw his paint thinner on them.

While trying to make sense of the situation, Dogan quickly whisked me through the front doors and back to the garden cafeteria, away from any danger that might reappear. And sure enough, it did. As my brain tried to process this new information, the security guards started running in our direction and back out the front doors where the Tinnergi had reappeared. Up against seven huge security guards, it was not a fair fight, despite the Tinnergi being in some sort of manic attack mode, which I later learned was part of the danger of a paint-thinner high. Within minutes he was subdued and thrown off the premises.

Kathy joined us minutes later for some real food and sweet Turkish tea, having missed the ER brawl entirely. It was now 7am and the sun was beginning its crawl to the top of the sky. As we sat there staring blankly at each other and mindlessly putting food in our mouths, we tried to talk about what had happened over the past few hours. Several times I had the urge to put my face in my hands and cry, but I managed to keep it together just long enough for the caffeine of three teas to kick in and lift my spirit. I tried to figure out why I was reacting this way, why I felt so scared and helpless. And why I clung to Dogan as if he were my personal saviour. At 29, having lived alone in places like Rio de Janeiro, London and Mumbai - places, I would argue, much more dangerous than Istanbul - trained in several martial arts and carrying pepper spray and a switchblade at all times, I had rather thought I was up to this sort of emergency. So why was it that once Dogan arrived, I felt like the world wasn’t ending anymore? And why did it bother me that all I wanted was for a man to take over the situation? Was it that I was in a male-dominated society and felt that only the protective presence of a male could balance the odds? Or was it something else?

Some time later, I was nudged by Dogan and made to sit up. Lost in contemplation, I had apparently fallen asleep with my head on the table, arms as my pillow. I sat there for a moment with blurry vision staring at one of the security guards, who I quickly recognized had been key in subduing the Tinergi. Having missed most of the conversation, I didn’t quite understand what was going on so I smiled politely and tried to reposition myself in my chair so I could lean my head back and sleep some more. The security guard had other plans, however. He was now directing his attention and questions at me, using Dogan as a translator. I answered his questions as politely and aloofly as I could, telling Dogan to explain that I was living and working in Mumbai, India and that I was only here in Istanbul to cover the recent Gezi Park protests for ten days. I made him stress the ten days bit because I had a sneaking feeling what this was about to turn into.

And then, sure enough, it happened. The security guard leaned over to me and said in Turkish, which Dogan simultaneously translated, “I have a house.” As I sat there wondering what to do with this information, it came to me that this was, essentially, a marriage proposal. This strange declaration was followed by “I love you,” the meaning of said phrase, I understand entirely. And this is when my body did the funniest thing. I broke into an uncontrollable hysterical fit of laughter, which eventually turned into tears of panic and then tears of relief. The world was indeed normal again. This was the Istanbul that I remembered: the Istanbul of constant emergencies, dirty and dangerous public hospitals; for better or for worse, a male-dominated society; and random, inappropriate marriage proposals just when you think the storm has passed. I had now finally arrived in Istanbul.

Leaning my head back in my chair, letting the sun shine directly on my face, I began to think. To this day, I don’t know what it was that made me so aware of the differences between men and women, and how men and women experience and react to the world, and sometimes even the same exact situation, in entirely different ways. But I do know that the series of events that I went through during those first 24 hours in Istanbul, when analysed side by side with what Dogan simultaneously went through, were entirely different experiences of the same situation. And I think that this is where I felt that life was still so unfair.


A New York City native, Fahrinisa Oswald currently does not have a fixed address, spending most of her time somewhere between NYC, Asia and the Middle East writing, photographing and editing for a living.

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