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Istanbul 2021: Part 2

Updated: Mar 21, 2022

4th August:

My god, yesterday was a day. I can still hardly believe it all myself, and I was there. I am still trying to work out exactly what happened.

I suppose I’ll start at the start, at the hostel around mid-morning. Mami was in a deep philosophical debate with Mike, an American, on the source of instability in the world, and why everything feels as fractious as it is right now. Mami believed it boiled down to sex. He was explaining how the greatest threat to humanity is, in his opinion, the porn industry. People substitute real relationships for a para-social one contingent on the quality of the acting in the scenes. Sexual frustration leads to unhealthy outlets. If porn didn’t exist, people would be more motivated to find real partners, with all the social and emotional maturity that requires. I could understand the argument: how many world leaders might simply be sexually frustrated, impotently firing their missiles in a trite metaphor? Mami and Mike were surprisingly invested in this subject and discussed it for far longer than I expected, although I couldn’t catch all their arguments as I was writing at the same time.

Afterwards, Mike, Mami, Gage and I headed out to explore the city. We started in the direction of Galata Kulesi, an ancient tower on the other side of the river, but soon we had moved far past it, following Gage to another insider’s restaurant. His route took us along busy alleyways and side streets, including a road of almost exclusively music shops. Beautiful instruments both traditional and modern were on display, with more than one employee passing time by playing a drum inside out of the heat.

Finally we arrived, and the air conditioning was a blessed relief. The food itself was not quite as good as advertised, but overdelivered on portion sizes. Mami didn’t even come close to finishing his half-chicken. But all this is prologue. The real story begins after lunch.Mami split from the group as he was feeling tired, so Gage, Mike and I decided to investigate a modern art gallery in the vicinity of the restaurant. The first installation was too obtuse for me to fully appreciate, so I moved on to the cinema room. I expected a small room with a projector cycling through abstract archive footage, but it was a full-size cinema! The seats were comfortable, and the temperature was cool, so I stayed to watch a little while.

“Excuse me,“ I hear from behind. “Is this the cinema room?” I turned to address the feminine voice and was met with a beautiful pair of deep green eyes, framed by a cream headscarf that covered the hair and face. Her dress was full of flowers.

“It is, although it’s more of a slide-show room at the moment.” One polite chuckle led to a few more exchanges before she came to sit with me. She took her headscarf off at the same time. Her hair was two-tone: gold tips that blended with a hazelnut brown, which rested in soft curls over her shoulders. Her eyebrows were strong and thin, and her eyelashes were long and delicate. She had a small nose and a shy smile.

Her name was Amin. She said she was in Istanbul looking to find a new home, so she could move away from Iran. She had been working as a lawyer there for ten years but was looking for a change of scenery. We were still talking when Mike and Gage came to collect me before leaving, having explored the entire rest of the gallery without me. I was enjoying her company so much that I quite bluntly (but light-heartedly) asked them to ‘go away.’ I would find out later that Mike, initially caught off-guard by my response, described it as a ‘baller move’, as if I’d just dismissed my bodyguards. Gage told me he had thought to himself, “I’ve been told to fuck off before,” in a very matter-of-fact tone. He says to me now that he wished he’d said it out loud.

Though I’d only meant it as a short-term request, they did indeed ‘fuck off’ altogether, leaving me with the most agreeable company I’d had in Istanbul so far. When I found out she would be leaving the next day, I asked if she’d like to do something that evening – dinner, or drinks, or both – if she was free. Amin said she had no plans for the rest of the day. I would have been foolish not to spend it with her when she asked, so I did.

We walked up and down the same street several times, veering one way and the other depending on our needs at that moment. After a brief stop at a sports shop for some trainers, we settled on taking a ferry across the strait to the Asian side of Istanbul, to visit a small lighthouse called Kiz Kulesi. As we walked, I noticed that she referred to her own language as Farsi. What she couldn’t have known is that earlier in the day, Mami had lamented the destruction of his Iranian heritage by the Revolutionary Guards and its replacement with whatever suited them best at that moment. He said that the education system in Iran was indoctrination, with the specific purpose of turning the students against foreign people and places like the U.S. When he mentioned his language, he called it ‘Persian.’ ‘Farsi,’ he explained, was a corruption of ‘Parsi’ which the Arabs struggled to pronounce due to the ‘P.’ It was funny then that, after all of Mami’s passionate talk, the very next Iranian I met referred to it as Farsi.

We passed by some cats on the way to the ferry, which is far from unusual here in Istanbul. That was another noticeable difference between my time on Crete and here. In Heraklion, they treated the cats like pests. Here in Istanbul, they treat them like collective pets. Unfortunately, the cats were skittish and didn’t stay for very long, to the disappointment of Amin. Of course, I couldn’t resist showing her pictures of my own ball of fluff, Socks, which she (as so many have before) instantly fell in love with. Cats and dogs are the gateway to anyone’s heart.

The street we were walking down was the same musicians’ street I had walked up before, which sparked a conversation about our own musical tastes. I couldn’t relate to any of the Iranian/ Arabic/ Turkish music Amin referenced, to my personal shame, but we did turn out to both be singers. Though she wasn’t as comfortable giving me a demonstration as I was at that time, she did promise to sing with me whilst we were on the ferry.

“Very romantic,” I commented.

“It is,” she replied, and a bashful smile broke out across her face. I couldn’t help but reciprocate.

Her Turkish was flawless, as was clear from her ability to ask strangers for directions. Does everyone outside of Anglophone countries speak a minimum of two languages? So unfair. Her English was fantastic. Occasionally I’d have to use a different word to describe a thought, but that was as much trouble as we had. In fact, it made the conversation more honest. Without the subtleness that fluency provides, emotions and ideas were reduced to more direct forms. It was nice. Very nice. Quite flattering in places.

Eventually we made it to the ferry. Amin was glad for the company. She showed me pictures of her dinner yesterday, which she had had alone surrounded by couples. All week she had been by herself in Istanbul, so she was happy to have met someone on her last day. Because it was her last day! It was such a tragedy that we had so little time together, despite being in the city for the same amount of time. That’s why I wanted to make it count. I was surprised at how much I wanted to make it count, honestly.

By this point I’d noticed how often people stared at her. When she’d asked for directions earlier, at least five men shamelessly stared at her for the entire length of the conversation. Now, there were two women sat opposite us that were also staring, swapping whispers amongst themselves. When I asked Amin about it, she proposed that it could be we made an unorthodox couple: a conservatively dressed Iranian woman, completely covered aside from her face, and me, some white guy wearing khaki shorts and a navy t-shirt with a cap on. I could maybe understand that, but it didn’t account for the men earlier. I think they were just leering.

We did sing to each other on the ferry, quietly. I asked if she had any requests, any preferences for style of song. She did not, so after a brief think I defaulted to Fly Me to the Moon; one verse, and the ending reprieve. She seemed to approve of the choice. In turn she sang a beautiful song, full of trills and soft cadences in a half-whispered, private voice. I couldn’t understand the lyrics, but I didn’t care. It was beautiful regardless.

Once we were off the boat, we stopped for a drink before moving on to the lighthouse. She taught me how to ask for a straw in Turkish: bir pipet lutfen. I ended up with three. Obviously, I combined them into one super straw so I could drink my coke without picking it up. She ordered a strawberry milkshake, and when she was unable to finish it, I helped. We shared it in classic Hollywood style, with a straw in either end and staring at each other. Things were heating up. Unfortunately for us, and despite it being less than a hundred metres from the shore, the lighthouse was closed because of coronavirus. This meant a disappointed walk back to the ferry, and a run-in with some Roma street-sellers forcing their flower crowns and roses onto us.

Once we were back on the European side of the city, we went for dinner at a restaurant on the waterfront. I was advised to try one of the local beers, although the choice was confusing as it appeared to be the same beer on the menu four times. In the end, it was drinkable, and far better than the beer I tried in that Parisian pub, but Amin enjoyed hers very much. As we dined on vine leaves and hummus, the conversation flowed. The view from the restaurant was a spectacular panorama of the Istanbul coastline. Hagia Sofia peered out from a patch of dark green trees – the only dark area of the city we could see. It gave me another perspective of the area around my hostel.

After we’d finished, she took me down to the riverfront, to a teashop to watch the street performers. Coincidentally, Amin knew the singer personally, and managed to request one of her favourite songs. I’d never heard it (or any of them) before, but the singer sang them with such passion that I was utterly enchanted. Every song was more beautiful than the last, and Amin was enjoying it even more than me. I could hear her singing along under her breath, and more than once I caught her stealing glances at me out of the corner of my eye.

You can guess as to what happened next. I waited with her by the bridge until she could catch a taxi. I said I would meet her in Tehran if I could find a way to get there. Then she was gone. I wandered home thinking about the day I’d had, and the girl I’d said goodbye to.

On the way back I believe I saw, and was almost a victim of, attempted pickpocketing when I found myself behind two tourists forced to slow down their walk by two men in front of them. Almost at once, two girls that had been loitering off to the side fell in behind the tourists, walking to catch up with them. I put my hands in my pockets, clutched my valuables, and hastened home.

When I arrived, I found Mike, Gage, and Mami at the front of the hostel talking about their days. They asked about what happened to me earlier, what I did after leaving them. I told them as succinctly as possible that I had no idea, it all happened so suddenly. We debriefed our days, and I headed to bed, ending what was perhaps the craziest whirlwind romance I will ever have.

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