Real people Real Experiences

Behind the Crescent 

I was in college, a Junior, it was 1980, I met a girl…isn’t that how it always starts?

She was a foreign student, Turkish. Her English was better than mine. She was an Engineering student…Mechanical Engineering. In the so-called 3/5 program…3 years at Barnard for a BA in Mathematics, and 2 more in the Engineering School for an BS in Mechanical Engineering. She was a sophomore at the time. Nothing like what you would imagine a Turk to look like…pale freckled skin, and bright red hair!

This dormitory was structured as 4 apartments per floor, each apartment having 5 bedrooms with a common kitchen and a bath.
Each floor had 2 apartments assigned for males, and 2 for females. Mine was at one end of a hall, the girl’s across the way.

It was an informal structure, doors were mostly open all day, and cross-fraternization was encouraged.

One thing led to another, and I was set to visit Turkey the following summer. Just to see Istanbul, meet her family, and see where things went.

Compared to my recent travels, it was a cakewalk, alhough it didn’t seem that way at the time. Given the pricing, and my budget, it was down to Pan-Am via London/Heathrow, KLM via Amsterdam/Schipol, or Luftansa through Frankfurt Am Main. It boiled down to a 14 hour flight with 1 stop. The first leg was easy…evening departure, in-flight dinner and a good snooze through the movie. Waking up to revolting steamed eggs, and tasteless coffee. Endless lines for the restroom. Then fitful dozing with the inevitable sun boring through your eyelids, thanks to a neighbor who just HAD to watch the sunlight on the clouds. UGH! Then landing at the intermediary stop. Despite the fatigue, making sure to stay in the transit areas, which were populated with still-closed shops (early morning, local time), and making plans for some shopping on the return trip. Then finally making the connecting flight, all the while wishing for a genie with a shower!

Finally arriving in exotic Istanbul, late in the afternoon. (I had requested a visa beforehand, and discovered that none was needed). This was before the Turks had built Ataturk Airport in Istanbul. The airport was an aluminum quonset hut, nothing fancy. What struck me as we were taxiing, were the tanks stationed around the runways. I later learned that the country was under martial law…and the military had had a coup…something that was accepted, and expected, if not enouraged, when the goverment had run out its short leash. It also explained the proliferation of both police and miltary nearly everywhere, toting automatic weapons. And armored personnel carriers parked on side streets just off the main roads.

I stayed at a small hotel not far from her family’s apartment. It was clean, and quite basic. Similar to pensiones that I had stayed in in Europe.
A room, private bath, and a modest “Continental” style breakfast consisting of slices of feta cheese, some tomato and olives, crusty bread with butter and jam, as well as the strongest blackest tea (of which I am quite fond of). The first morning, she “collected” me, as I would have been lost otherwise. I learned the “path” to her family’s apartment that day, and walked by myself from then on. We spent 2 weeks visiting many museums and historic sites, with her mom acting as a guide (history was her mom’s interest, while my girfriend could not have cared less!)

My impressions: the food was phenomenal! The people were universally friendly and helpful. Religion was visible everywhere, especially at prayer times, but definitely, low-key. And an almost universal disdain and derision of all things arabic.

It is a very common invective in Turkey: “Oh God, if I am lying, please turn me into an Arab”

My former father-in-law told me a joke…there was this Arab visiting Ankara. He desperately needed a toilet. There being none available, he hoisted his robe hem and proceeded to defecate in the street.
A policeman saw him, and rushed over…you can’t do that here, sir. I’ll have to write you a ticket!
How much is the ticket? The Arab asked. 20,000 lire was the response.
The Arab handed over 50,000 and said write 2 tickets, my son has to go as well.

To be continued…
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