Cities without landmarks
Niagara Falls, U.S./Canada
“Fuck Allah. Fuck Mohammed.” A smile played on Kemal’s handsome, hard face, but his body was tense. Five minutes ago, he’d introduced himself and urged me to try an hors d’oeuvre at his friend’s birthday party. Somehow we’d gotten onto Islam, and now this outburst. Most upper-class Turks I’d met were unsympathetic to religion, but Kemal’s vehemence was unusual. Perhaps you had to have once really, really believed in your God to come to this point.
Kemal continued in his perfect, nuanced American School English, speaking of a loss of faith that had been spurred by reading Omar Khayyam, and I almost laughed. This reminded me of the last man I’d cared about, the only Muslim I’d ever dated. Amir had said he was a believer, but the two men shared a bedrock gravity and naiveté about religion I’d never found in a Christian or Jew I had dated. Here was also a seriousness about the written word I could only envy as a writer. Oh, I could imagine a fundamentalist Christian turning against his upbringing and cursing Jesus, but I couldn’t imagine it happening because of a poet. In Anglo-Saxon culture, poetry has not had such power for hundreds of years. But Muslims are people of the book, and as a student of Farsi I knew the centrality of poetry to Islam.
I let the topic of Allah drop, sensing that the cursing was part of a flirtation. And to my delight, for I was very attracted to him, Kemal turned the conversation to sex. At home in Istanbul he had a girlfriend, and he was convinced she was cheating on him during his three-week vacation in New York.
“Listen, this year in Istanbul I slept with one Italian woman who was on her honeymoon and another, Turkish, who was married for only one month. What does that tell you? ”
“That you’re cute.” What it really told me was that Kemal was preoccupied with female fidelity and was sending out signals that attracted women who were promiscuous, or wanted to be.
“And you, do you sleep around when you have a boyfriend?”
“It depends. Anyway, I don’t have a boyfriend.”
We soon came to the topic I’d dreaded, my age. Kemal wanted to know the year of the first of my five trips to Turkey, but it had been in 1978 so I didn’t want to say. It turned out he was just 32, 12 years my junior, the same age as Amir. Fate was laughing at me; though I’d sometimes found our age difference intriguing or moving, more often I’d been disappointed by Amir’s immaturity. I was telling myself that it would be perfectly understandable if Kemal walked away, but instead he asked if we could go somewhere for a drink.
I suggested my house, a little nervous because we hadn’t so much as touched. But when we got home things moved very quickly. Kemal was everything I was looking for in bed, or almost everything. He was intense but without the slightest flicker of warmth, not even the reflexes of a man used to caressing a girlfriend. There was no love to be made here. We had cold and breathtaking sex for a couple of hours, and then Kemal moved very far away, as the queen-size mattress allowed, and began to speak. I was disappointed that the sex was finished; Kemal was a skilled and satisfying lover. Perhaps his mind had drifted to his girlfriend; I missed what I had felt for Amir.
“If you get too close the sex isn’t exciting anymore. That’s the problem with most marriages. Couples should have separate bedrooms, the way my parents and grandparents did. They shouldn’t sleep together like lovers, holding each other. And you don’t need to talk so much to your girlfriend. You talk to your friends. When you meet a woman you want to fuck, you don’t talk to her. You see if you like touching her, you smell each other. Then you go to bed together.”
I sat up straight, all languor gone. These were the same questions that obsessed me. Perhaps Kemal was right, though he’d never been married. Some of the marriages I knew that worked best were those where husband and wife spent a lot of time apart. My own longest relationship — seven years — might have owed its longevity to two months-long stretches we spent living in different cities. And I’d grown to feel that Americans were too quick to make friends of their lovers, or to think that what they needed in a lover or a spouse was another friend. If I could satisfy my curiosity about a man by talking with him, I didn’t need to go to bed with him. The ones I wanted, now, were those whose hearts I learned through their bodies, those I got to know by making love.
I wanted to put feeling first, and sometimes it seemed the only way I could do that was to date men who didn’t see a relationship as mainly conversational. Perhaps this was why there had been a lot of musicians in my love life years ago. And it could be that men from some of the Muslim countries shared this style. Amir had spoken more to me, and much more eloquently, when we were friends than he ever did in the hours and hours we spent making love. Physical intimacy made American men voluble and open, but it had quieted Amir.
A friend of mine had said that the problem with Amir was he couldn’t both fuck and talk to a woman, and maybe this was the other side of what Kemal endorsed. What would it mean for a husband and wife to be “too close”? Wasn’t this a sad idea? But I also thought of one of the lines from the 13th century Sufi poet Rumi I had copied 100 times with a bamboo pen, practicing my Persian calligraphy : “Be silent that the lord who gave you speech may talk.” If we explore ultimate things when we make love, perhaps men and women learn more about each other in their silence than in their speech.
“I could sleep with a different woman every night in New York. You’re the third in three weeks.”
I had also been seeking consolation in sex; I wasn’t shocked. Then Kemal continued, “If I wasn’t staying with friends I could have fucked three more — an Italian woman who didn’t have a place of her own, and two 18-year-olds I had talked into a threesome. I met them at a club, one was Greek and one was Ukrainian. But they didn’t have somewhere to take me.”
Kemal stood up and put on his underwear, then sat down along the wall opposite the bed, facing me. He was now as focused and serious as if we had been discussing politics.
“New York is easy. It’s the major leagues in Turkey. It is so difficult to get a woman there to go to bed with you. You have to make her jealous. I only go to clubs where I know a lot of women, so I can dance with one and then another. Just as soon as one of them is getting hot for me, I excuse myself and dance with another one. If I didn’t do this, they wouldn’t be interested. That would be overkill in New York, people would think I was crazy. But in Istanbul it is what you have to do.”
Kemal spoke again of the faithlessness of women, musing that his girlfriend was probably doing exactly what he was doing, and I asked whether Turkish women liked American men.
“Turkish women are interested in American men. They’re tall, blond, and they have the same accent as the actors in the movies.”
How touching, after years of envying British and Italian accents, to realize that we Americans are glamorous for others just as they are for us.
“I met my girlfriend when she was with her boyfriend, an American. I asked for her number and she gave it to me. Later she told me that she lost respect for him because he let her give me her number. If it had been a Turkish man I would not have asked. And if I had asked, he would have stopped it, or started a fight, or said something, something humorous. What’s worse, her former boyfriend is still my friend! American men are not men.”
I could picture the American, studiously p.c., trying not to be possessive or treat his girlfriend as if he owned her. I shared Kemal’s scorn; I also missed an element of gender contrast with most American men and didn’t often find them erotically appealing. Still, I didn’t like hearing it from a foreigner. And American men had a basic kindness and generosity that was a desirable part of masculinity too.
“Your country is completely crazy now, with all these rules about sexual harassment. In Turkey the society takes care of sexual harassment. If a man is harassing my woman friend, I will warn him, and if he continues, I will beat him up. If a man rapes a woman, and he goes to prison, he will be killed there. If a man in a subway molests a woman, he will be beaten up.”
I wondered if that were true. The social compact Kemal mentioned, which Amir had also invoked, held that men protected women and in return women deferred to and took care of their men. It had its beauty, and I had known something of what they spoke. But it had broken down everywhere, not just in America; women largely kept their share of the bargain, but men no longer treated them with kindness and respect. Amir had shown me passion and tenderness, but he wasn’t even aware of how little respect he had for women. I heard none as Kemal mentioned his girlfriend, or the games he played to entice women.
Kemal went on, bestowing advice to Americans. “You women shouldn’t be too nice to us men. Turn your boyfriends down sometimes, we love that. But you have to recognize when we are being nice to you. It isn’t always easy for a woman to tell.”
This made me sigh, for Kemal was on to something. American women have been indoctrinated so well to demanding the outward show of love that we can have trouble recognizing affection when it is emerging. The more fragile and difficult fondness between men and women becomes in the West, the more strenuously we demand the duty call exactly at the correct time after the first date, the right restaurant for the second date, a dozen long-stemmed red roses on Valentine’s Day. We focus on the forms because we are afraid even to look to see if the content is there, afraid to look at our own hearts, and our lovers’.
“I worked in Russia for four years. I love Eastern European women. If they like you they will fuck you and if they don’t they won’t, there’s no bullshit.”
There is no courtship, Kemal may have meant. Maybe he didn’t get it about courtship, the Western ritual in which a man feigns submission in order, ultimately, to dominate. Asking a woman for her number in front of her boyfriend? Bold and direct, but also crude and charmless. The sort of man who would do that might also ask another woman for her number in front of his girlfriend. This was the behavior of someone for whom all of life reduced to power relations — a premise I had grown to find immeasurably sad, and also boring.
As Kemal pulled on his jeans I noticed that they were peculiar; at the ankle there was a horizontal seam and a flared part like none I’d ever seen. Then he drew on a pair of terry socks, as short as the white ones with pompoms I’d worn as a girl, but these were black.
I laughed. “You shouldn’t wear those in the States,” I told him. “Only women wear socks like that here. And one doesn’t wear socks at all with those loafers.” I flashed on another man, an Arab friend who wore a white tie on a black shirt, and on Amir’s oddly bulky black shoes, policeman shoes. Then I felt ashamed for congratulating myself on knowing the rules of my own culture.
“What do you do in Turkey?”
“Lawyer. And you?”
“Are you going to write about this?”
Kemal kissed me on both cheeks; we were back to being near-strangers. But when he saw my cats on my couch he cuddled them. “I miss my cat at home.” As Kemal walked out the door, he said, dripping sarcasm, “Tomorrow’s Friday, my last day in New York. I have to find a mosque.” He had perhaps asked God one too many times for solace he did not receive. I knew the feeling. And I went downstairs to my computer and wrote down what he had said.
A month later, a mutual friend told me that Kemal and his girlfriend had broken up just before he came to New York; they are back together now and he is reportedly very much in love.
Ann Marlowe is the author of "How to Stop Time: Heroin from A to Z" and "The Book of Trouble," published last month.More Ann Marlowe.
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