A large sign greets travelers at Cairo’s Airport. “It is strictly forbidden to deal with any type of drugs in Egypt. Any infringement by a foreignber or Egyptian will subject him to life imprisonment in some cases or death by hanging...” People were posing for photographs beneath the sign, which went on to state, “In the hope this warning will be heeded, we wish you a pleasant stay in our country.” It was Christmas, my first time traveling alone, and in that moment I wondered if I had made a mistake.
As travelers waited at customs, soldiers carrying AK-47s led dogs down the lines of people. The dogs put their noses to each piece of luggage, sniffing quickly and moving on to the next. I heard stories of drug smugglers who, to escape arrest, put their products into the bags and pockets of innocent travelers, who end up imprisoned. Paranoia grew. A dog paused, sniffed my feet, snuggled its nose into my bag, and as heat flushed through my head, it moved on. Towards the rear, a man in a Bob Marley shirt looked pale, like a corpse.
A foreigner walking out of the airport in Cairo gets just as much attention as an ATM spitting cash. I managed to wrestle my way through the mob of men shouting “Taxi! Come with me, friend.” I agreed on a price, which was five times the local price, but a good deal for a tourist. I arrived at the Sun hotel before dawn, and was given a windowless room. I lay in bed, too jet-lagged to sleep. I could hear the muffled arguments of men shouting in Arabic nearby. Knowing my mother was preparing a turkey dinner 5,000 miles away, my eyes glazed with tears as the Islamic call to prayer echoed into my room, signaling that the desert sun would soon be rising.
With the Sun optimism returned. I was on the streets early, in a t-shirt, while locals wore heavy coats in the mild winter. Cairo is a massive, dirty, congested city, full of noises and smells – an amazing place. The smell of diesel mixed with cooking meat will always remind me of Cairo, as will the sound of muezzins competing with honking cars. Merchants invited me into their shops for tea, and when I told them I was American most wanted to discuss two topics - Israel, and if it was easy to go out with unmarried women in America. I didn’t pay for a single cup of tea during my week in Cairo; I merely had to smile and sit.
When a foreigner hales a taxi, they’ll arrive at their destination, but only after stopping at the shops of the driver’s family. You can argue and explain that you’re not interested in buying a hookah or a carpet, but it’s easier to just go for the ride. Besides, it does present interesting experiences. The Great Pyramids of Giza were fifteen minutes away, but it took two hours since I ended up buying paintings and papyrus scrolls from my driver’s uncle.
As my taxi approached the Pyramids, a group of men spotted me and gave chase. They caught me as I was getting out of the taxi, shouting their offerings. Paintings! Drinks! Camels and horses! To be free of the harassing mob, I arranged to go around the pyramids by horse.
My words cannot add to the greatness of the pyramids, so I won’t try. What I remember are the desiccated horse carcasses we encountered in the desert surrounding the pyramids, which were guarded by snarling dogs with protruding ribs. The beasts snapped at each other and made bluffing charges at our horses, who ignored them.
On New Years Eve I left by train for the southern city of Aswan, 13 hours away. Only seats were available, so it was impossible to lie down. It was crowded with locals, who cooked on their portable gas stoves. No one spoke English. I sat next to a woman in a burqa. Not even her eyes were visible. In vain I tried to sleep. Half way into the journey the New Year began. At home people were falling in love and embracing. I was alone on an Egyptian train crossing the Sahara. And then in the distance I heard a muffled radio. Listening carefully I heard the nostalgic words of Auld Lang Syne, “Should old acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind…”, and the tears flowed down my cheeks. I never realized just how much I needed friends and family until then. And when I look back on that train ride, I realize it was one of the better experiences of my life. I traveled on for two weeks, did this, did that, slept on the Nile, but the mention of Egypt brings to my mind one thing – a lonely, tearful train ride on New Years Eve 2001.
Two Days in Istanbul
Many times, the first thing a traveler to a foreign country notices is the difference in smells. And rainy, cold days, the air permeated with the smell of cooking meat and diesel exhaust, will always bring me vibrant memories of Istanbul – that, and things not quite as subtle.
I had not intended on getting robbed twice in the nightclubs of Istanbul or being stripped naked by a large Turkish man, but that’s exactly what happened when I went to Istanbul. I had traveled there on a whim, alone, just a few months after the September 11th attacks, and most people I knew cautioned me against going to a Muslim country during such controversial times. Besides, they said, I’d miss Christmas and New Years, and wouldn’t it be horribly depressing to be away from home during the holidays? But went I did, not truly realizing I’d be completely alone and so far from home until my Turkish Air flight erupted with applause as it touched down on the runway in the only major world city that rests on two continents.
After fetching a late-night taxi to the hilly Sultanahmet area of Istanbul, and waking up the chubby owner of the guesthouse I had reserved a room with online, I started to question my decision to come to Turkey. I was exhausted from the nearly twenty hours of travel, and had no meaningful idea of what existed outside my third-floor room. I lay on my back on the bed, fully clothed with my shoes, hat, and jacket still on, my single heavy backpack abandoned in the doorway, and watched the large ceiling fan rotate above me for fifteen minutes, hypnotized by it. Near my head the bedside lamp flickered on and off every few minutes, and what seemed like countless cats meowed outside in the empty, dark streets. And at that moment, thinking of home and the smell of holiday cooking food and the laughter of family, a single salty tear squeezed out from my eye and rolled down my cheek, dripping onto the heavy blanket beneath me. I suddenly realized that I may have made rash, foolish decision in traveling alone. I fell asleep thinking how Christmas was just days away, and I wanted to be home, not 5,000 miles away in Turkey.
My first morning I woke up quickly, eager to get out of my room and see what awaited me outside. The deep regret that I had felt when first arriving the night before had faded, and an excitement brewed inside me. I ate a few hard boiled eggs and pickles provided by the guesthouse, and went outside. The streets were wet, and the air was cold and moist, with a heavy, gray overcast of clouds draped across the sky. A few people were walking about dressed in dark clothing, and within eyesight were several skittish, thin cats, which meowed at me sadly from behind trash bins and parked cars, but darted away if I went too close. The smell of cooking meat hung in the heavy, watery air, and with the breeze came a hint of exhaust. The buildings were densely packed together and none stood more than a half-dozen stories high, each floor holding onto a thin, metal porch where rugs and clothing hung in the wet air. Many streets were little more than alleyways, none seeming to be any more important than the next. Although the smell of exhaust was subtly present, and the faint sounds of engines and horns came from somewhere far off in the distance, Sultanahmet was as still and quiet as an early morning Sunday back home, not a single car seen moving. I decided to make my way uphill, hoping to reach a point where I could see at a distance and get a grasp of my surroundings.
After wandering about for an hour or so, sometimes walking for hundreds of yards down small roads and cobbled alleys to only come to an abrupt dead end, I reached what appeared to be the highest point in Sultanahmet. A café advertised in English that it had “The Perfect View”, so I entered. Following a thin stairway five stories up to the top of the building, I found the café, which had about a dozen little tables, each draped in a pink tablecloth. There were large windows on all sides, and I felt like I was sitting in a large glass box perched high above the city. As advertised, the views were indeed perfect, providing an excellent place to sip hot tea and do nothing more than admire the beautiful place Istanbul truly is.
Istanbul has a grand past that many are not aware of, and is perhaps one of the world’s greatest cities. It is still sometimes referred to by its previous name of Constantinople, and at various times was the capital of the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman Empires. Istanbul is the gateway between the Mediterranean and Black Seas, and has guarded the southern end of the Bosphorus Strait, which connects the two bodies of water, for centuries. Istanbul essentially consists of three peninsulas reaching into the Bosphorus Strait, two in Europe and one in Asia. Sultanahmet is one of these peninsulas, jutting out from the western shore of the Bosphorus, technically part of Europe, and is within eyesight of Asia, which sits across a mile or so of the dark waters of the Bosphorus. Several bridges unite the city, as well as connect two continents.
The café sat between, and within view of, Istanbul’s two most famous landmarks, the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sofia Mosque, along with their many rocket-like minarets penetrating the gray air. Behind them, the mile-wide Bosphorus Strait, and then, further back, all of Asia. The sight could be described as nothing short of exotic. The two massive mosques are two of the few remaining structures still standing from the Byzantine Era, and they stand facing each other, with a green park between them. Both are amazingly large, and beautiful. The rusty-colored Hagia Sofia, once a Christian cathedral, is so large that the Vatican’s Saint Peter’s Basilica could easily fit inside it. Minarets many hundreds of feet tall protrude from the two giant mosques, as well as from many smaller mosques nearby, like giant spears pointing straight into the gray sky.
And as if on cue, as a slipped my coat off and put hot tea to my lips, the Muslim call to prayer, the Adhan, began to emit from the tops of the minarets – from all the minarets of all the mosques in the city. The glass between me and the outside world was no barrier to the low pitched and drawn-out words of hundreds of muezzins calling on their fellow Muslims to stop whatever it was that they were doing and pray, to give thanks to Allah for all that there is.
During my time in Istanbul, I realized that many of its inhabitants did indeed stop doing whatever they were doing to pray – fives times each day – when the muezzins called out for them to do so. I found that it was not uncommon for cars to stop in the road, and for people in shops and on the streets to roll out their prayer rugs, and to kneel upon them, giving thanks to God. When the call to prayer echoed throughout the city, it channeled down every road and alley, and the normally bustling city went through a brief, temporary change of mood, one of silence and peace. And then, just as quickly as it began, it ended, and the city went on with itself as if there had been no halt to its activities at all.
I sat sipping my tea, watching the heavy boat traffic of the Bosphorus move by, south to the Mediterranean or north to the Black Sea. Large cargo ships were the most numerous, and I imagined how some were bringing oil from the turbulent Caucus region to Western Europe, or how some may have been American, bringing Kansas grain to the Ukraine or Russia. Others I imagined, were bringing coal from the mines of Romania to Libya, or perhaps further away to Asia, eventually going through the Suez Canal far to the south.
The water was dark, and looked choppy, and I wondered if the theory I had read about was true, that the Biblical story of Noah and the Flood originated with the waters right before my eyes. It is now known that the Black Sea was not always a sea, that at one time, many thousands of years ago, it was a dry basin where people lived until, it is believed, a massive earthquake ripped apart what is now western Turkey, creating a giant crack in the Earth now known as the Bosphorus Strait. In a torrent that was estimated to last – perhaps not so coincidentally – forty days, the waters of the Mediterranean stormed through the newly opened channel until the basin to the north was filled with water, becoming the Black Sea of today. I finished my second cup of tea with these thoughts, frightened at the image of how violently water must have flowed through the Bosphorus so long ago, if the theory is true.
The ridiculous concerns of my family and friends – that I would be kidnapped or murdered or blown up by Muslim terrorists – soon faded from my mind as my first day proceeded, for the residents of Istanbul soon proved to be some of the friendliest people I have ever encountered.
Most people I passed on the street smiled and nodded in greeting, and every merchant, although they were very interested in making a sale, seemed sincere in their desire to make me feel welcome and at home. It was virtually impossible to enter a shop and not be asked by the owner to sit down for a few minutes and tell him about my life, while either his beautifully exotic wife or silent helper brought cup after tiny cup of extremely sweet, hot tea, or brutally strong coffee in thimble sized bronze vessels. And with it being so dreary outside, it was wonderful to enter into a warm, usually tiny shop, where rustic-colored rugs covered the walls and floors and the smoke of incense hung in the air.
My wallet would come out, and money would be spent in such shops. Perhaps I had been seduced by an elaborate, charming sales scheme, but I didn’t feel like it. Maybe I was given endless supplies of hot tea and coffee to smother my reasoning with an overdose of caffeine, but in my mind, browsing through Istanbul’s many shops remains a very pleasant memory, one of coziness, of welcoming and friendly people. By the end of my first day in Istanbul I had bought two very beautiful, rather expensive, hand-made Turkish rugs, my only regret in the purchases being the difficulty I had in carrying them for the next three weeks.
Early in the evening, once the sun had set, I went to a hostel near my guesthouse to send out a few emails to let my family know I had arrived safely. While there, I became acquainted with an Australian couple – Brian and Louise – who had just arrived from Nepal after traveling throughout the Himalayan region for several months. After talking to them, I soon realized that what I considered the beginning of a long adventure was nothing but a short stint in the minds of most young Australians, who commonly travel throughout the world not for weeks, but for months and even years at a time.
I had dinner with them in the hostel’s pleasant fireside basement, where the owners had made an attempt to cater to their mostly Christian guests by putting up a few strings of blinking Christmas lights and a small, scraggy Christmas tree, decorated with tinsel and even a crowning star. Brian and I played a few games of chess and took turns buying each other large, cheap beers, and after he and Louise went to bed, I decided that instead of going to bed myself, I’d go out for a few more beers on my own. Being my first true night in Istanbul, I felt an obligation not go to bed early, and when I walked out into the streets I did so as one of the most dangerous things on Earth – a single, twenty-four year old male.
“Where you go?” asked a driver as I ducked into his taxi.
“Somewhere where there’s music and fun,” I said.
“Music? Fun?” He said with a smirk.
“Yes. Take me where's there's good music and fun!” I said happily as the taxi sped off into the night.
A few minutes later, after driving over a bridge spanning a body of water called the Golden Horn, we entered Beyoglu, the European peninsula to the north of Sultanahmet. The traffic became heavier, and then we entered Taksim Square, the busy heart of Istanbul. The sidewalks became crowded with people, mostly well dressed youth, both male and female, coming and going from countless cafes and bars advertising themselves in blinking, neon lights. Large billboard signs for cell phones and Armani clothing stood on top of buildings, some of them containing beautiful long-haired Turkish women in bras and tiny panties, beckoning to those below to buy, buy, buy, to be sexy. Some of the more provocative signs surprised me, since I thought Turkey would be more conservative, being a Muslim country. But the nation has a secular government, and in Istanbul especially, the people look more to Europe than to the religious lands of the East for inspiration.
We drove away from Taksim Square, down darker streets with fewer pedestrians, and eventually we pulled up to a shabby building that had a blinking pink sign above the door that stated “Nightclub”. At the steel, windowless door were two huge men, dressed tightly in business suits. The men seemed as if they would be too big to fit through the door themselves. The place, and area in general, seemed seedy, and I felt a slight hesitation in my gut, a nervousness, but being a single, twenty-four year old male, with few reservations, I got out of the taxi and walked towards the door and two men. The taxi driver shouted, “I wait for you! I wait for you!” as one of the big men opened the door for me, and I entered.
Inside I began to walk down a long, thin staircase. Behind me the steel door slammed shut like the hatch of a submarine. As I went lower, the sound of techno music became clearer, as did the dim colors of pink and green neon lights. At the bottom of the stairs were two more large men in business suits. I stood for a moment looking about, trying not to look too dumb, when an old lady suddenly came and tugged at my jacket, wanting me to give it to her, apparently for the coat room. I paid her a small fee, and she disappeared with my jacket into the darkness. Another man wearing a black suit, smaller and weaker-looking than those at the doors, approached me, introducing himself as the manager.
“Welcome. Where are you from?” He asked in a slow, steady voice, heavy accented. He looked like the father from the Adam’s family show, pale skin and very dark features, with a small mustache.
“New York,” I said, not knowing why I lied.
He made a few complimentary comments on New York, and America, and asked me to follow him to a seat, where he’d give me a free beer, in thanks for visiting Turkey. We entered a large, dark lounge, which was barely lit by a various colored neon lights. The air was foggy with cigarette smoke. Slow, Turkish music, the voices of women singing, filled the room.
Men were sitting about at small tables. Most of them were older men, in their fifties or sixties, well-dressed, and appeared to be Turkish. Most of them were accompanied by beautiful young woman in skimpy clothing, their white skin seeming to glow in the pale neon lights. The men appeared as heaping silhouettes, like boulders, and the girls were like collections of long white legs and arms, as if they were illuminated from within. Most of the woman sat on the lap of their companion, and I could see that many of the men giggling like little boys. Along the edges of the lounge were half-circle booths, deep inside the walls, where more men sat with women. In the center of it all was an elevated platform, where a few young women danced.
As I followed the manager, I walked closely to a big man with a long mustache, a girl in his lap. She had her mouth close to his ear, her lips speaking some sinful words, and the man suddenly bellowed out in laughter. At this point, had I not been a single, twenty-four idiot, I would have walked out of the place - but an idiot I was.
The manager led me to a booth and sat next to me. A beer immediately appeared in front of me, and found its way into my hand. I began drinking at once.
“On the house, as Americans say, yes?” He said with a false smile that since time began spoke of trickery.
As I drank the beer, he asked me about America, what I did for a living, and what my parents did. I even went so far as to show him pictures of my young nephews. A second beer came, and suddenly a dark haired woman slid into the booth next to me.
The manager instantly got out of the booth, and said with a wide smile full of big teeth. “Champagne for the beautiful lady?”
I knew that I was digging myself a hole. I knew that the situation was not one I wanted to be in, but my stupidity overwhelmed my senses.
“Yes,” I said, knowing that it was the wrong answer, but not being able to say anything else. The champagne came instantly, bubbling in a tall glass. I guzzled my beer down quickly, thinking that with it finished, my escape would be quickened. But the second beer, already opened by a man in a tuxedo, waited for me to drink it. I put it to my lips, not knowing what else to do with myself, hoping to make myself not look so young and inexperienced, as if I was accustomed to drinking beers in booths with beautiful women, like some rapper.
“You American, yes?” The young woman asked.
“Yes,” I said obediently, like a young boy being reprimanded by is grandmother.
“Very handsome you are.” She said. “Don’t you like me? Don't you think I'm pretty?
I knew, somewhere deep inside my skull, that I was in a very bad position, but her accented voice made my body feel as if it was drugged, weighed down by lead.
“Yes, I do. You are very pretty,” I said like a zombie, drugged. And then my common sense, buried far below, spoke out, hoping to snap me out of my predicament by changing the subject. “Where are you from?”
“From the Ukraine,” She said. I noticed that she had finished her champagne, when suddenly the man in a tuxedo rushed over and refilled her glass.
I would later find out that most of girls working in the nightclubs of Istanbul are essentially slaves, imprisoned into a life of prostitution. Many come from impoverished areas in Eastern Europe looking for opportunity, and all too often find themselves with nowhere else to go but brothels. The Turkish mafia will pay for the transportation costs for the girls to get to Turkey, provide them with a place to live – probably a place unfit for even rats – and then demand that the money is paid back before the girls are allowed to leave. Most of the girls have no money to begin with, and get paid so poorly once they have reached Turkey, that they can never pay off their debt, becoming trapped into a hopeless situation of abuse and cruelty. There is no one to go to for help, no concerned police or humanitarian organizations, no way to get home, and most girls who try to escape end up begging on the streets with busted faces and jaws, or worse.
My mind flashed back to what I had read in my Istanbul travel guide, about how a “Nightclub” is nothing more than a brothel, and that Western men should not enter such places, especially alone. The guide had said that those stupid enough to enter should prepare themselves to have large sums of money extorted from them. I realized that I was in the precise situation I was warned about. Like struggling to wake from a frustrating dream, pushing my mind through a heavy fog, like trying to unwrap myself from a tangle of sheets and blankets, straining against my stupidity, I suddenly stood up.
“I have to go,” I said, scooting out from the booth. I felt as if I had just woken up from a long nap.
The manager was waiting for me in the isle, as if he predicted this moment. Behind him were two huge blocks of flesh wearing suits, their hair cropped tightly to their skulls, their black shoes the size of cinder blocks.
“You go?” The manager said with the same smile.
His smile vanished. He reached inside his jacket and pulled out a piece of paper, the bill, and handed it to me. I looked at the slip of paper, and saw that it amounted to 270 million Turkish Lira, nearly 200 dollars.
“This is not right,” I said angrily, which caused the blocks of flesh in suits behind the manager to walk closer, standing guard behind him, ready to defend their master.
“It is right,” the manager said, his two men at each of his shoulders, towering over him. “One beer – 30 million Liras. Two glasses of champagne – 80 million each, and you…”
“I didn’t even ask for the beer, and I didn’t order the second…”
“But you drank it, and you did not refuse the champagne.” He said sternly. “And you spent five minutes with the woman – 80 million.”
“You’re robbing me! This is a crime!” I looked back at the girl in the booth, who was oblivious to the situation. She was adjusting her top, looking down at her breasts as she casually knocked them about into a comfortable position. “I’m not paying.” I said.
The two blocks of flesh grew larger, like large beasts filling their lungs with air to intimidate an enemy. I could almost hear their suit jackets stretching over their bodies, ready to burst with terrible power.
“If you would like, Sir, we can go to my office, to negotiate,” the manager said, his smile back.
I did not respond, sensing that there was another meaning behind his words, a threat perhaps.
“We can negotiate in private, quietly,” he said, waving his arm around him. “Without all of these distractions.”
I may have been stupid in coming inside this place, but I had brains enough to realize what “negotiate” might mean. I looked at the hands of the men behind the manager, and they were the size of catcher mitts, which I imagined bending back my fingers, one by one, meticulously, snapping their bones as easily as balsa wood. They were blocking the isle with their massive, solid bodies, and my impulsive idea to run was impossible. I would pay for my stupidity one way or the other, with money, or with broken bones and bruises, and then money.
“Ok. I have to pay in credit card,” I said, defeated. “I don’t have enough cash.”
“Oh, I am sorry,” the manager said with horribly false regret. “We must charge you 30 million if you pay with credit card.”
And so, defeated and demoralized, but oddly grateful to be leaving in one piece, I paid the additional 30 million Lira, and left the Nightclub to find it snowing outside. The taxi driver, as promised, was waiting for me amongst the first guards by the entrance, but realized there was no fare to be had with me after I told him to go screw himself. He was the first link in my extortion, and most definitely profited from it.
I passed by several other nightclubs, most guarded by more large men in suits who paid me no attention. Once, younger men, about my own age, came out from one such nightclub, apparently trying to get me to enter, where I would most likely be extorted from again. When they surrounded me with fake smiles and pats on the back, I pretended to be horribly drunk, swaying slightly on my heels and speaking with a slur. I showed them a picture of my infant nephew, which they took and passed about amongst themselves, giving it back with a look of confusion on their faces, and left me alone, returning to their steel door. Perhaps they thought I had drank myself into a stupor to escape the misery of a deceased or sick young son, and I thought that it was surprising, that even vermin like them had enough ethics to leave such a despaired man alone.
I eventually found my way back to Taksim Square, where normal bars filled with normal people lined the streets. There were no steel doors here guarded by behemoths in suits. Still angry about being such a fool and getting $200 extorted from me, I went inside a random bar and did my best to forget what had just happened. There were mostly locals, both women and men, and a few Westerners, who clearly stood out from the crowd. I had a beer, and eventually got involved in a conversation with a young Turkish man about my own age, named Recep, and told him what had happened to me at the nightclub. He said that it angered him that this happened to someone visiting his country, and said that he would bring me to a place that was not full of thieves run by the mafia.
“You think those men in suits were mafia?” I asked, knowing the answer.
Istanbul is notorious for its organized crime, which manages everything and anything regarding sex and drugs. And they are known for being particularly brutal; to them breaking the fingers of stupid American tourists would be a minor inconvenience, perhaps even a pleasure.
“Of course. All nightclubs are with the mafia. Everyone knows this,” he said slapping me on the back. “We go to a good place.”
I went along with him, my mood better but cautious. Inside The environment inside the place Recep brought me to was no different than the nightclub from earlier in the evening, the same steel door and massive men in suits, mafia. I told him that I was not happy, that I would only stay if we did not talk to any women. He agreed, leading me to a booth, and I went to the restroom, wondering if I should just leave. When I returned, two young women in bikinis were sitting in our booth, my new friend between them.
“You like?” Recep said, gesturing to each girl with his outstretched arms, as if he had created them, and was proud of his craftsmanship. He was a dark silhouette speaking from between two pairs of long, shining white legs and perfect bosoms.
“I’m out of here,” I said and walked off.
Recep caught up with me, a sincere look of worry on his face. “Why are you leaving? They are beautiful.”
“I’m not getting ripped off again. I told you…” I large hand grabbed onto my shoulder, not painfully or viciously, but with calm power. I turned around and there was a large man in a suit, his hand still grasping my shoulder. Two others were behind Recep, enclosing him with their massive bodies.
“You did not pay.” The one holding on to me said.
They ushered us through a doorway and down a dimly lit hallway, their bodies blocking the way behind us. Our legs moved quickly and involuntarily, the way they would if we were in the front of a steadily moving herd of bison, marching down the hallway with no way to go but forward. We stopped outside an office door, where inside a smaller man, regular sized, sat in a chair behind a desk, dressed in a black suit, a boss of some sort. He spoke in Turkish to the large men, who steadily pushed Recep into the office, closing the door behind him. Two stayed with me in the hallway.
I was not so frightened as I was angry at myself for allowing myself to be so stupid, once again, twice in the same night. I didn’t bother to speak to the two men with me, but I could feel their expanding chests as they breathed in and out, decreasing the available volume of space around me when they inhaled. They were powerful men, and it was obvious that they would not hesitate to restrain me with brutal force, something they had probably done many, many times before, with perhaps other American young men, those stupid enough to try to resist physically. In some way, certainly an idiotic way, I was excited, thrilled, to be so close to what was definitely the notorious Turkish mafia.
A few minutes later the door opened and out came Recep, his face drawn. Before I could speak to him, I could feel the body of one of the thugs behind me pushing me into the room, the door closed behind me. I was essentially sat down in front of the boss, and explained that normally the police would be called when a customer tries to escape without paying, but since I am a foreigner, a guest in Turkey, they will give me a chance to be honest. I explained in vain my story, about how I went to the restroom and came back to see the two girls sitting in the booth, but it was all dismissed with a wave of the man’s hand.
“You must pay. Your friend has paid half. Now you must pay 150 million,” I could not believe my ears, another 100 dollars was being extorted from me. I hesitated, saying nothing and making no motion to reach for my wallet.
“There is no option,” the manager said sternly. “You will pay.”
I looked around the room, and noticed a fish tank against the wall, where large goldfish lazily swam about, oblivious to the complexities of the human world beyond the glass of their tank. The room was quiet enough for a moment to hear the bubbles in the fish tank. Then I noticed the large suit to my side, filled with a massive Turkish male. The manager sighed, and the large suit moved closer to me, close enough for me to hear his breathing. I looked up, and saw his unblinking eyes staring into my own, and out came my credit card, eager once again to pay the additional 30 million credit card fee.
Outside, Recep was waiting for me by the entrance. I stormed past him, saying with the zeal that alcohol and anger provide that he had betrayed my trust. He ran after me.
“I am sorry, my friend. Let me buy you a drink,” He said, his feet slipping on the small amount of slushy snow that had accumulated on the road.
“No. Get out of here. You know them!” I shouted. “You betrayed me,” I said angrily, as if I was on stage in a theater.
“No! I paid too,” he said, and then more desperately, in a sobbing voice “I am a friend of America. When I saw the Twin Towers fall I filled with sadness…”
“Get lost!” I said without looking back.
The sound of footsteps in slush behind me stopped, and Recep was gone. I didn’t know for sure whether or not he was involved in the extortion, or if he himself had been a victim like me. I wondered if he had to pay money while I was outside the office door in the hallway, or if he was actually being paid a commission for bringing in yet another stupid American man with a wallet full of credit cards. Either way, I was through being an idiot, at least for the night.
I walked a long way until I had no idea of where I was, completely disorientated by stupidity and anger. It began to snow harder, big, full flakes. I eventually got a taxi back to Sultanahmet and to my guesthouse. Getting into bed, the dry warmth under the blankets gave me a sense of euphoria. My head was heavy with beer, and when I turned the lights off the room began to tilt back and forth slowly. I had calmed down, and although I was somewhat drunk, I began to think rationally for the first time that night. I was utterly amazed at how stupid an single, twenty-four year old male could be. Such a person is truly a dangerous thing. The last thing I did before drifting off into sleep was laugh out loud, actually pleased with myself and the idiotic situation I had played a part in. I knew it would make a good story in the future.
At dawn, the hypnotizing sound of the Adhan, the Muslim call to prayer, peeled my eyes open. I could hear muezzins off in the distance, their voices unified and muffled, and then suddenly one nearby, perhaps one who had begun late, erupted from what sounded like the other room. I put a pillow over my head, wondering how I did not hear it the morning before.
I woke up later, with the sun shining brightly in my room, with no idea of the time. My head throbbed, and my mouth was dry. I remembered that there was a bottle of water in my backpack, and forced myself out of bed to get it, knowing that any delay would just bring more pain. The water tasted sweet as I swallowed, as if a few packets of sugar had been dropped into it. The water made me feel slightly better, but the knowledge that I had spent well over $300 the night before infuriated me. But it was simply the cost of being a naïve fool, an idiot.
I went downstairs to find the owner, hoping he had the time. He was a friendly man, with a girlfriend living in Texas. It was almost 11 o’clock, and I had missed breakfast. I briefly explained to him about what had happened the night before, careful to omit the second extortion to keep him from knowing just how dumb I was.
“This is not good. These places are very bad places,” he said somberly, shaking his head slowly back and forth. “You should go to a bathhouse. This will make you feel refreshed.”
I followed his advice, and started out for a bathhouse a few blocks away that he recommended. Just outside the guesthouse I came across Louise and Brian, who were returning from the Grand Bazaar, a giant market that sells everything known to mankind, the biggest in all of Turkey. They asked how my night had been.
“Not good,” I said, and went on to explain my story.
Brian laughed out loud, enjoying my misfortune as would any man. “I wouldn’t worry too much about it, mate. I’m sure you’re not the first bloke to get ripped off like that. If I’d gone out with you, I’d be out a fistful of money too.” I hoped he was right.
Bathhouses are everywhere in Istanbul, so common that it seems you can not walk more than a few blocks without seeing several. They are predominately a place for men, where all men, regardless of their status in life, can go as equals to bathe and relax with a massage or in the heat of a sauna. Most men go at least once a week, and the bathhouse serves as a social center, a place where politics and everything under the sun can be discussed. American men have the gym, sport centers, and the likes of the Sons of Italy and Knights of Columbus – Turkish men have the bathhouse.
I entered an undistinguished building, where an old man, similar in look and aura as the nightclub managers I had become unfortunately acquainted with, waited behind a small desk. Behind him, going in and out of dressing rooms, were what appeared to be Turkish men, of all ages and sizes. Some had nothing on but white towels, wrapped around their waists, and others were dressed for the street. The old man nodded at me, and without speaking, handed me a laminated piece of paper with a list of service, written in both English and French. I’ve learned while traveling that whenever there are menus or prices listed in English, the prices are inflated for tourists. But since I saw what appeared to be local men inside, I decided that I’d stay, even if I was going to pay more than a local would.
For the equivalent of ten dollars or so, I chose to get the “traditional Turkish massage”. The old man spoke over his shoulder, and a burly, younger man wearing slacks and a sweater came over and introduced himself as Abraham.
He led me to the dressing rooms. I was given a heavy, white towel, and a pair of wooden sandals, along with the key to my small dressing room, where I changed quickly. I left my clothes and belongings behind somewhat hesitantly, locked the door, and then waddled out wearing the wooden sandals, hoping I had secured the towel around my waist properly. Abraham was waiting for me, and gestured for me to follow him.
It was difficult walking in the wooden sandals, since they were heavy with an inch thick heel. They had a tendency to fall of my feet when I took a step. Holding tightly to my towel, which had already almost fell to my ankles, I kept my feet to the ground and shuffled along the floor to keep the sandals from falling off. The sandals made a loud, scratching sound as I moved. I passed some older men, puffing on cigars while sitting in their towels, their chests nothing more than bushes of grayish white hair. They looked at me, seeing clearly that I was a foreigner by the way I walked in the sandals, moving as if I was skating on ice.
I was surprised when from a dark and narrow hallway we entered a well lit atrium, made from white stone and filled with warm, moist steam. This was the actual bathhouse, I thought. It looked old, as if it had been built during the Roman times. Several marble columns supported the domed ceiling, some forty or fifty feet above the stone floor. It was filled with natural light, with beams of sunlight slanting down to the floor from a few sunroofs far above in the dome. Droplets of water fell from the ceiling, rolled down the walls, and could be heard falling into pools of water, as if it had just finished pouring in a jungle. There were several plants scattered about in pots, adding more moisture to the air. A few men washed themselves under small streams of water pouring from the walls through the mouths of various bronze faces. Other men sat up to their necks in rectangular pools of steaming, bubbling water. One man was lying on his stomach on a platform of white stone, while another man walked on his back and hit him with a small branch.
I was led to another stone platform, and Abraham motioned for me to lie down on top of it, face down. As soon as I did, he left the atrium, leaving me behind with the sound of water falling or being splashed about, and the bristling sound of the branch occasionally being struck across a man’s back. There were no voices. Considering the fact that I was lying on hard stone, it was surprisingly comfortable, and the heat and thick moisture in the air, soon made me doze off into a light sleep.
I woke up, feeling a presence next to me, and it was Abraham, standing over me, wearing nothing but a white towel and wooden sandals. Nearly nude, he seemed even larger than before, and I wondered whether I had made yet another poor choice. His bulging stomach was covered in thick black hair, more like an animal’s fur, which grew over his shoulders and around his sides. His feet were like blocks of flesh, connected to his bulking body by legs that were like the trunks of small trees.
Without any warning, his large, hairy hands came down onto my back and began to dig into my muscles, pushing hard and painfully, probing around the backside of my ribs and shoulders as if he was looking for something embedded deep in my flesh. I started to breath in such a way so that I would exhale as Abraham pushed down onto me, to decrease the pain produced by his strong hands. My vertebrae were popped under the weight of his hands, as were most of my ribs and sternum as they were crushed against the stone beneath me body. If any more pressure was applied, I thought my bones would break, and the muscle torn from them. My legs and arms were also massaged in this painful, but strangely relieving fashion. Abraham grabbed my head, and jerked it quickly to both sides, making it sound as if a man wrapped in bubble rap had fallen down a flight of stairs. My small hands were enveloped in his larger ones, and were compressed until each knuckle and joint popped. He grabbed my feet and pulled on them until something gave in my pelvis with a thud that I felt more than heard. Each hand was also pulled until my shoulders were almost pulled from their sockets.
Abraham stopped, and I hoped that the massage was over, but he was merely removing his sandals. He stood up onto the stone platform with me, straddling me. I closed my eyes, not wanting any chance at seeing the mass of tangled hair and loose flesh that was surely hidden up his towel between his legs. He placed one foot on my back, getting his balance, then with all his weight, placed his second foot onto me. All the air was expelled from my lungs in one sudden gust, and he began walking up and down my back, starting just above my butt and ending at the bottom of my shoulder blades. I couldn’t breath, which may have been a good thing, since I would have shouted out in agony if I had been able to. My right testicle was crushed against the stone, and ached in pain. I thought that it would burst, like an overripe grape. The left one, perhaps seeing the torture of its partner, immediately sprang back inside my abdomen to escape the same fate. Something in my pelvis popped, and I let out a fart that cracked across the atrium, and it was over. Abraham was back on the floor, in his sandals. With one motion, as if I was a rag doll, he flipped me onto my back, and began kneading my chest and shoulders vigorously, pushing on my stomach and upper thighs as if he was trying to tear the skin off of them. I was still dazed from him walking on my back, and numb from the experience, so there was nothing else that could be done to me that would cause any more discomfort. My right ball hung loosely, unconscious, and perhaps swollen. Then Abraham slapped me on the chest, hard, three or four times, as if he had just discovered I had stolen his wife. That was the signal. The massage was over.
I was led, essentially pulled off the stone platform by Abraham, to one of the steams of water pouring from the wall. I sat down in front of it in a wooden chair, putting my hand into the cool falling water. A cloud of relief floated in my head. My body had been beaten and it was happy at simply being left alone, and perhaps that was the objective of the massage itself – to make one immensely grateful for the pleasure there is in not being beaten and abused by a large Turkish man.
“Massage,” Abraham said. “Done.”
“Ok,” I said.
“Massage done. Ok,” he said again, pausing, a wrinkle of thought spreading across his forehead. “I give vedy good shumpoo.”
“Yes, vedy good shampoo.”
I was just about to ask the price, when Abraham came forth with it. “Fifteen million.” He looked over his shoulder suspiciously, probably not wanting his boss to know that he was making extra money on the side without the bathhouse itself making any.
I agreed to the price, not really knowing exactly what a shampoo was. Abraham only knew a few English words, but he still managed to show me how I would give him the money, mostly by using gestures. I would shake his hand at the end and give him the money while doing so, discreetly.
Abraham walked off, leaving his sandals behind. His back was a wall of black hair, with just a few patches of white skin showing through here and there. He came back a few minutes later with a big plastic bucket and a long pole with a sponge attached to one end and a course scrubber to the other. I wondered if he was going to wash the walls and floor, and if I had agreed to help him. He dropped the bucket onto the stone ground, white bubbles tumbling over its rim, and gestured for me to get underneath the stream of water gushing from the wall.
I was completed soaked within seconds, as was my towel. Abraham took a bottle of shampoo that was floating in the soapy water in the bucket, and squeezed some into his hands, which he quickly lathered and put onto my head. He started to scrub my head vigorously, digging his thick fingers into my scalp. Once the soap was washed from my hair, I was to lie down on the stone floor. I did, and like a skilled waiter pulling the tablecloth out from under plates and glasses full of expensive food and drink, Abraham pulled off my towel quickly with one powerful thrust of his arm. My mind flashed with the realization that I was soaking wet, lying completely nude in front of a massive, hairy man wearing only a towel, and armed with a long scrubber and sponge. I realized I had made a regrettable choice in opting for the shampoo, however very good Abraham may have been in giving one.
Abraham dipped the sponge end of his pole into the bucket, and brought it out dripping with soapy water. He then commenced to lather my enter body, under carriage and all, as if I was a car getting a wash on a sunny day. The sponge went up and down my quickly, in long strokes.
“Vedy good, yes?” He asked with a smile, apparently proud of his shampooing skills.
I didn’t answer. I was unable to. I simply stared up to the ceiling, trying to keep my mind from knowing where my body was. There was a pause, and then Abraham started to use the courser scrubber end of his pole, with the same long and hard strokes. Apparently, my groin was in need of particularly hard scrubbing, and I did my best to ignore what was happening. Then the remaining water from the bucket was poured over me, and I was given one final scrubbing, not as long lasting as before, but no less shocking. Abraham collected fresh water from stream of water in the wall, and washed away all the soap from my body by dumping bucket after bucket of water over me. I stood up and put my towel back on.
“Vedy good?” Abraham asked, leading me out of the atrium and back to my dressing room.
“Yes,” I said, walking clumsily in my wooden shoes.
In my dressing room I dried off with a fresh towel and quickly put my clothes back on. I went to get the 15 million Turkish Lira for Abraham’s shampoo from my wallet, but saw that there were only a million and a half inside it – I had no where near enough money to pay Abraham. It was a mistake I had made before With Turkish currency containing so many zeroes it was easy to confuse the various bills. The smallest bills were worth 250,000, and I only had eight of them. When Abraham had said that the shampoo would cost 15 million, I miscalculated how much I had, thinking I had 20 million when I really only had 2 million. There was nothing I could do. Abraham would be waiting just outside my dressing room door, waiting for me to shake his hand and give him the money. I had no choice but to face him.
I opened the door and walked out. Abraham immediately approached me with a smile, extending his hand. I took it, and his smile slowly faded from his face when he realized there were no crumpled bills between my hand and his. Quietly, so no one else could hear, I said that I was sorry and didn’t have enough money. I padded my pockets hoping to signal that they were empty, said sorry again, and walked away. I doubt he understood a word that I said. By the exit I looked back at him, still wearing his towel and wooden sandals. We made eye contact. I saw in his eyes a certain hurt, since to him I had betrayed him, cheated him. I walked out into the street more disturbed about screwing over Abraham than I was about the nude shampoo.
Outside it was raining and cold. I actually felt extremely well, physically. I was refreshed, felt extremely clean, and my muscles were loose and relaxed. A visit to the bathhouse was an excellent experience, excluding one minor detail - Abraham. If Abraham had been a beautiful women I would not have been so traumatized, but Abraham wasn’t an attractive woman. He was a massive, overweight Turkish man, covered in hair, with callused feet and hands, with a grip as strong as an enraged gorilla’s. But I suppose it made for a better story
I went back to the bathhouse later the next day with the money I owed Abraham, but he wasn’t there. The old man at the front asked me if I had something I wanted to give to Abraham, that he would pass it along to him later, but I said I didn’t. I assumed the old man would pocket the money himself and never give Abraham a thing.
“You were correct not to give the money to the man. He would have taken it himself,” said the honest owner of a rug shop, which I had been sitting in for the past hour, sipping tea, negotiating the price of a rug. I had been explaining the past two days to him, my fiasco at the nightclubs, and the situation at the bathhouse. “Perhaps you can go to the bathhouse again, tomorrow, and he will be there for you.”
“I’m leaving tomorrow morning, for Cappadocia,” I said. Cappadocia is a region in central Turkey, famous for its odd limestone landscape and caves, where people still inhabit today.
“When will you return? Perhaps then you can right this situation.” His English was excellent, his accent holding some evidence of learning it in Britain.
I explained that I would be flying back to Istanbul in five days, but I would only be spending a few hours in the airport before leaving the country for Egypt. It would be impossible for me to go to the bathhouse again.
“Well, it is unfortunate that you will not be able to spend much time in Istanbul. But it seems to me that your two days in Istanbul have been very memorable,” he said, a sly smile on his face.
“Yes,” I said with the same smile. “I won’t forget them.”