Thoughts reverent and irreverent from the road in Turkey


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It was an odd end to an otherwise enjoyable day. I’d strolled along the Bosphorus from Kuruçeşme to Bebek with my guidebook writer’s hat on, ticking off the minutiae of change. Tiny little Suada at Kuruçeşme looking ever less like an island and ever more like one of those top-heavy cruise ships that moor at Tophane and completely block the view from nearby apartments. The once acclaimed Abracadabra restaurant at Arnavutköy replaced by glossy white-painted Sur Balık. The waterside Egyptian Consulate resplendent with new colour after a lengthy restoration. It goes without saying that wire mesh now obscures the view of its grounds from pesky passers-by but I was lucky and as I peered like an urchin through the fence suddenly the gates slid open so that some dignitary could leave, and I was granted a brief unimpeded look at its fine frontage (and who, I wonder, owns it now? The increasingly brutal SCAF that have taken over from Mubarak?).

I’d made only one diversion, which was to visit the Church of St Demetrius in Kuruçeşme built over a spring dedicated to St George. The church itself is habitually locked but you can visit the icon-filled chapel and then creep along the narrow corridor behind it until you reach the source of the spring slowly emptying into a small pool on a ledge. The walls of the corridor are thick with calcium deposits giving it a weirdly cave like appearance. When I asked if I could photograph the chapel the answer was an emphatic no, which was odd and particularly irritating when no one had stopped the taggers from scribbling their wretched names on the stalactites.

In Bebek I popped into Happily Ever After to stock up on cup cakes, there being a grave shortage of these in Göreme where I live. Then I caught the bus back to Taksim – and found myself sitting opposite two young women in the sort of all-enveloping black robes more usually on display in Çarşamba. Nothing suprising about that, you might think if you don’t know İstanbul very well, but, believe me, in Bebek it would have been a lot less surprising to find myself sitting opposite two women in micro-mini skirts and killer heels.

But what really suprised me was the emotions they aroused in me. Let’s start by saying that I’m not one of those people who gets worked up about the headscarf. As far as I’m concerned a scarf is just a piece of cloth some women feel comfortable wearing that in no way interferes with their ability to go about their life normally. Provided that they’re not being coerced into wearing it I don’t see it as anybody’s business but their own. Indeed I’d go so far as to say that the sooner everyone here stops getting so het up about headgear the sooner we can start refocusing on matters of actual importance.

Why, then, did these two young women (and I could tell from their eyes that they were young) make me feel so uncomfortable? Was it that they looked as if they’d dropped in from the Middle Ages while everyone else on the bus was so determinedly living in the 21st century? I knew it couldn’t have been that alone because the same strange, creepy feeling has come over me before when I’ve been looking at women clad in head-to-toe black in the east of Turkey. It has something to do with knowing, as a woman, how much their clothes are cutting them off from the rest of the world, in part because of the keep-out statement that they’re making but in part because of their sheer impracticality for modern living.

To be fair, these two were not actually wearing Iranian-style chadors, the garments that carry that impracticality to its most ludicruous extent. Dressed in one to visit a shrine in Shiraz, I struggled to keep it modestly closed while at the same time carrying my camera and notebook. It would have been qite impossible to take any notes on the spot. Iranian women solve the problem by gripping a corner of the material in their teeth, but the point surely has to be that a true chador renders efficiency at any kind of non-home-based work virtually impossible (a fact acknowledged even in Iran by the existence of an alternative dress code of wimple and long mac).

Instead these women, like those in Çarşamba ,were wearing a much more practical robe that bunches in the middle. One of them was wearing black gloves, the other not, suggesting that even within their particular sect it’s possible to disagree about what exactly constitutes modesty.

I suppose that part of my discomfort stems from indignation at seeing other women throwing away the freedoms women of my generation struggled so hard to achieve. But even if I could accept their right to choose to forego those freedoms, it remains the case that concealing one’s face has always been associated with erasing one’s identity. Think highwaymen. Think bank robbers. Think terrorists. These women, with their lower faces veiled and only their eyes peeking out, are choosing to erase whatever it is that would normally render them individual. And as a woman I both can’t understand why they would want to do that and am irritated that they should choose to do so because it lays the way open for the suggestion that all women, myself included, should be obliged to do likewise.

What, I wonder, were they thinking as they sat surrounded by trendy-looking Bebeklis? Maybe they were so wrapped up in their own world that they weren’t thinking about their neighbours at all. But somehow I doubt that. There was a flicker of nervousness in those eyes, and they huddled close together like nervous kittens; them against the world.

But perhaps ultimately what I hated most about their veiled faces was knowing that they could read what I was thinking while I was in the dark about their thoughts. In Beşiktaş they left the bus, twittering happily and swinging their handbags. I wish I didn’t have to admit it but I was happy to see them go. It just felt so awkward, you see.400 DSC07713



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