One fateful day in Istanbul

As he recalls the curious cast of characters he encountered that day in Turkey, our correspondent ponders where he went wrong.

Published January 18, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

When the date-rape drug finally wore off to the point where I could think and function, I found myself face-down in a darkened park not far from Istanbul's Blue Mosque. For an instant, it was as if I'd been born all over again, erased and re-rendered. I remembered nothing: who I was, why I was there, what I'd ever been doing before that moment.

Instinct told me to stand up. Shaking like an addict, I drew myself up to my haunches and pushed with my legs. I rose to my full height for just an instant before something malfunctioned and my whole body veered rigidly to one side. I fell over like a wind-up toy on a rumpled bed sheet; my shoulder hit the pavement first, then my face.

Blood welled on my cheekbone as a hazy understanding began to form. I patted down my pockets: My petty cash was gone, as was my wallet, my leather belt and my Swiss Army knife. I felt along my belly for my hidden money belt, but it was gone, too -- passport, traveler's checks and all. Oddly, my red spiral notebook and my recently purchased Penguin anthology of Middle Eastern mythology were still jammed into my back pocket.

Pulling myself into an upright position, I took a few deep, deliberate breaths. Sitting there, drugged and dazed in the dim park, I strained to reconstruct what had just happened.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Up until the moment I lost consciousness, my day in Istanbul had already been exceptional -- enlivened by unexpected camaraderie, by uncommon novelties. In one afternoon, I'd met more strange people than the rest of my brief days in Turkey combined. Trying to determine at what point I went wrong would be no easy task.

Technically, I wasn't supposed to be adrift in the city that day, since I'd been scheduled to join a pre-planned Cairo-bound overland trip the day before. However, when the truck and trip leader never arrived for the pre-departure meeting, I found myself with an extra day to kill in Istanbul.

Since I'd already spent three days touring Istanbul's marvelous historical attractions -- from the lavish Ottoman halls of Topkapi Palace to the crowded dagger-and-houka-pipe stands of the Great Bazaar -- I decided to devote my extra day in Istanbul to random wandering. Strolling the parks and alleys of the Sultanahmet tourist district with no particular goal, I spent my morning taking in the details I'd been too busy to notice when I first arrived.

Istanbul has long enjoyed a reputation of mystery and intrigue -- of East and West commingling in grand palaces and smoky alleyways: a place where dreamers, schemers and pilgrims go to lose themselves. As I walked that day through the ancient neighborhood where the Bosphorous and the Golden Horn meet the Sea of Marmara, everything I saw seemed to contain a hidden currency. When a tout in Sultanahmet Square bullied me into his carpet shop, I was interested less in the Persian-styled rugs than the 1500-year-old Byzantine column that slanted crazily through the recently poured concrete floor of the showroom.

When I asked an old Turkish man how I might find an "eczane," he gave me directions to the pharmacy in shrill, German-inflected English that made him sound like Col. Klink from "Hogan's Heroes." When I walked past the earthquake refugees camped out in the grass along the Hippodrome, I noticed that several of them clutched cell phones.

A little gypsy girl selling candy near the tram station wore an oversized Metallica T-shirt cinched at the waist like a dress. Cats crouched in doorways and alleyways; sea gulls soared over the minarets of the Blue Mosque. A neatly dressed Turkish boy sitting on the tram grinned shyly at me and whispered "Fuck you," as if in greeting.

Sometime around noon, I was approached near the Galata Bridge by an African teenager. His skin was as black as coffee, and he flopped after me in a loose-fitting pair of rubber sandals. "Hey man," he called to me, "where are you going today?"

Since this same guy had already approached me two other times in the past three days, I decided to yank his chain a little. "I'm going to Senegal today," I said. "Don't you want to come with me?"

A look of confusion came over the boy's face. He'd told me he was from Senegal two days before, but no doubt he'd told dozens of other people since then. It was a few beats before he smiled in recognition. "Oh hey, I remember you. You're Mr. America. You're always alone, and you never want to meet any girls. Maybe you could meet a girl today, huh? You have a place to stay?"

"Yes, I still have a place to stay," I said. "And no, I don't need to meet any girls. I'm just looking for some place to eat lunch."

"Why don't you go to McDonald's? American food for Mr. America, yes?"

"But Mr. America is in Turkey now," I said. "So maybe he'll eat Turkish food."

"Turkish food is for Turkish people. McDonald's is better for you. Maybe you can buy me a hamburger, OK? I want to try a McDonald's."

"You've never eaten at McDonald's before?"

"McDonald's is for Americans. I am so poor!"

Against my better judgement, I decided to indulge him. "What kind of hamburger do you want?"

"A big delicious one. And a Coca-Cola. I will wait right here until you come back."

"If I buy you a hamburger, you have to come to McDonald's and eat it with me."

The Senegalese boy seemed to hesitate for a moment before falling into step with me. On our way to the restaurant, he told me his name was Ahmad. "Do you think I am very handsome?" he asked.

"I'm just buying you a burger, Ahmad. I don't want to be your girlfriend."

Ahmad let out an embarrassed laugh. "No, no," he said. "I want to know, am I very handsome? Could I go to Sweden, do you think?"

"What does Sweden have to do with whether or not you're handsome?"

"I think rich Sweden women like boys from Africa. I want to go to Sweden with a rich woman."

"Sweden is cold, Ahmad."

"But I think rich women are very warm!"

At McDonald's, I ordered two Big Mac meals. Ahmad temporarily forgot his hustler persona as he devoured the food in silence and stared around at the spotless, mass-produced interior. "That was my best food ever," he said, somewhat dispassionately, when he'd finished. "Now I will help you find a pretty girl."

"I was thinking of something else, Ahmad. How would you like to go out for a smoke?"

Ahmad's face lit up and he leaned in toward me. "You smoke hash?" he said in a loud whisper. "I will find some for cheap price!"

"I don't want to smoke hash," I said. "I know something better."

In the heart of the Sultanahmet tourist area -- not far from Emperor Justinian's 1,400-year-old Church of the Holy Wisdom -- I'd recently discovered a back alley waterpipe joint called the Enjoyer Cafe, which was run by a man who called himself Cici (pronounced like "G.G.").

Though the cafe was wedged between Internet rooms and kilim vendors, Cici's homespun, adage-spewing charisma more than made up for the lack of authenticity. Thin, lazy-eyed and companionable, Cici would make his rounds as customers from every stripe of the tourist spectrum sat on cushions and pulled on the bubbling blue-glass pipes.

I'd first visited the Enjoyer Cafe (named for Cici's mantra: "Enjoy your life!") the night before, along with a few other clients from my postponed overland tour. Though my companions left when the tram lines closed, I stayed on the outdoor cushions and chatted with Cici about Islam and America until the cafe closed. Since Cici had sincerely asked me to come back, I'd decided to treat Ahmad to an afternoon at Cici's waterpipes.

Ahmad looked dubious the moment he saw Cici's cafe. "Those are apple-smoke pipes," he said. "Apple smoke doesn't make you feel good. I will find some hash instead."

"The smoke is not important," I said. "I think it's just a good place to relax and talk."

"I am sorry. I must make an appointment with my brother. I can't smoke with you today. I will find you a girlfriend later, OK?"

"Whatever you say, Ahmad." I watched as the Senegalese teenager flopped off down the alley.

At the Enjoyer Cafe, Cici greeted me with a nervous smile. "I am glad you returned to talk to me," he said. "But I am sorry to worry. Maybe it's none of my business, but was that black boy your friend?"

"That was Ahmad. I wouldn't call him a friend, necessarily. He's just someone I know from walking around Sultanahmet. I just bought him a hamburger."

Cici looked at me like I was crazy. "You must be careful, my friend. He is a bad boy, I think. Many Africans are not honest people. They come here only to cheat and steal."

"I'm careful. Besides, I know Ahmad is a hustler, and Ahmad knows I know that. I think he's harmless."

"I am sorry. You are right. I only warn you to be careful because many people come to Turkey like blind men. Tourists, they come to take photos, but they don't see past their cameras. Businessmen, they come to Turkey to trade, but they are blind to everything that doesn't carry a price. Travelers, they look around, but they only see what is already in their mind. Do you know how you must come to Turkey, my friend?"

I already knew the answer (he'd given me a nearly identical spiel in a different context the night before), but I didn't want to throw off his rhythm. "How's that?" I said.

"You must come to Turkey as a guest. Then you will look with your eyes and you will see. Not as a tourist with his camera or a traveler who looks and sees his own dreams. Be a guest of Turkey. A guest knows he is safe, because his hosts love him."

"I'll be your guest then, Cici. Do you have a pipe for me today?"

"Of course, my friend." Cici said something in Turkish to Mustafa, his sleepy-eyed assistant. When Mustafa had ducked into the small indoor hut to prepare a pipe, Cici shot me a sly grin. "Did you meet Mustafa yesterday?" he asked.

"Sure," I said. "But I didn't talk to him much."

Cici laughed cryptically. "Mustafa is too tired to talk. After the earthquake, he is afraid to go back to his apartment, so he sleeps here. None of his girlfriends want to sleep with him in the cafe, so he is very sad."

"Just how many girlfriends does Mustafa have?"

"Not very many, since his girlfriends cost 10 million lire for each night." Ceci laughed heartily. "Mustafa is only 20 years old, so of course he is crazy for sex. Tell me, must Christians take a bath after the sexual act?"

"No, not that I'm aware of."

"Well, in Islam, a man must wash after sex. If he dies before this bath, he will not be pure before Allah. So you see, when the earthquake hit Turkey in August, Mustafa was not pure; he had not yet washed."

"Had he been with one of his girlfriends?"

"No," Cici said. He grinned and made a wanking motion. "He was watching porno movies."

"Watching pornos counts as sex?"

"A man is impure whenever he, well, whenever he finishes." Cici made another dramatic wanking motion to underscore his point. "And Mustafa was impure, so when the earthquake came, he did not know whether to run outside and be safe, or to first take a bath. Because, you see, if he was killed trying to run outside, he would not be pure before Allah."

As Cici told me this, Mustafa came out and placed a blue glass waterpipe before us. I watched as Cici spooned a few hot coals into the small brass bowl. The damp apple tobacco let off a curl of smoke. Mustafa took a seat beside me and handed me the pipe's wooden mouthpiece.

"So what happened?" I asked, choking a bit on the thin, sweet apple smoke.

"What do you mean, my friend?" Cici asked.

"What happened during the earthquake? The 'choice' you were talking about."

Cici laughed. "This is not a secret," he said. "You do not need to talk like a spy. In Turkey, there is no shame for men to talk about sex and purity. If you want to know what Mustafa did during the earthquake, ask Mustafa."

Mustafa gave me a puffy-gummed grin. "I ran outside," he said. "No bath." He blushed, then turned to Cici and asked something in Turkish.

"Mustafa wants to know something about America," Cici said. "He says he heard that in America, girls do not want money for sex. Is this true?"

I thought for a moment, thinking of the best way to phrase my answer. "In America, men and women are social equals," I said. "Sex is a free choice for both sexes."

Cici translated this for Mustafa, then laughed at the reply. "Mustafa says he will move to America, so girls will pay him for sex." Cici gave me a sardonic look. "I think he will never make any money."

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

I stayed at the Enjoyer Cafe with Mustafa and Cici for nearly two hours that afternoon. Mustafa asked me lots of baffling questions about sex in the West ("But what do you say to a woman to get sex if you have no money?"), and Cici preached for a bit on the values of Islam: How a gift to the poor is like a gift to the Creator; how everything in life beyond basic human needs is a matter of ego; how the Creator has 99 nicknames, but only answers to Allah.

As I got ready to leave, Cici again warned me about Ahmad, the Senegalese boy. "I only mean to be careful around those black boys," he said. "I don't mean to worry about the future. Do you know why we must not worry about the future?"

"Why's that?"

"Because the future is the next moment. Who knows what will happen in the next moment? Who knows which of us is closer to death? This is why I say: Enjoy your life."

That was the last time I would talk to Cici. Before that day was over, however, I would see both Mustafa and Ahmad again.

I left the Enjoyer Cafe at about half past three that afternoon. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I had only three waking hours left in my day.

By Rolf Potts

Rolf Potts' Vagabonding column appears every other Tuesday in Salon Travel. For more columns by Potts, visit his column archive.

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