Call Me Laura

Stopping at Istanbul seemed like a good transition from Egypt back to the US. It is a country in which more than 90 percent of the population is Muslim, but unlike Egypt which is definitely an African/Asian mashup of Middle Eastern culture, Turkey is mostly Western, for all that it lies in both Asia and Europe.

Blue Mosque Entry Way
The Arch leading into the Blue Mosque of Istanbul

The median age of the almost 50/50 male/female population is young – only 28. Male literacy is around 95 percent, while female literacy is almost 20 percentage points below that. This fact reflects a lot of my experience in Turkey. In Egypt, I lived a harlem-like experience- my exposure was mostly to women, children and older married men. As a family, we didn’t go out that much at night – the only times I was out after dark involved carrying a 5 year old home.

In Istanbul, you don’t have to wait for the night to see signs of life, and you can sit out on the Bosporus and have a cup of coffee or a beer. But like Egypt, almost all public–facing positions – shopkeepers, waiters, bus drivers to bankers – are filled by males. It is a male dominated society, with over 60 percent of the economy driven by the service and industry sectors. So basically, anything you want to do, you have to interact with a male. And some of them can get quite pushy.

Men looking to take tourists around will come up to foreigners and try to guess their nationality as a way of striking up conversation. After all time spent in a strict Islamic country where a strange man would never have approached, this was somewhat flattering the first twenty or so times it happened, but it did get more annoying as the guides got more and more aggressive.

Finally, I had had enough. Henna, Helas, LA! even, guys. The line was crossed when within two minutes two separate guides approached me. The first asked if I was Belgian. Which was greatly flattering, since the only person I know from Belgium has been on the cover of Elle, Harpers and Vogue. So I was floating along in a yeah-he-needs-glasses-but-thinks-I-look-like-Lizbette moment, when then next man asked if I was German.

Pop! And there went that bubble of bliss.

Germans, to Egyptians at least, were the loudest, largest and most likely to not respect customs of the country type of people. They, as one Egyptian woman explained to me, out Loud American’ed the Americans. As the guide had torqued me with the question, and I was pretty fed up with all the random men approaching me, I decided to punk him and answered his “Are you German” query (asked in English) with the freckling of Arabic that I know. “Ana Cairo. Misr. Isme Laura.” He looked at me uncomprehendingly in response to my “I am from Cairo (which was techinically true, my plane had just landed from Cairo that morning. . . ). Egpyt. My name is Laura.” I then added some more of my impressive Arabic, strung together very emphatically. “La! Maya, broyed, Arabay Muttafa, Arbaa, Khamsa, Ithnan!” Or, “No, Water, Eggs, Firetruck, 452.” He started to apologize in Turkish (which is an extremely polysyllabic language – I thought Arabic was effusive, but Turkish seems to take even more time to say something. . . ) and backed away. Probably because he thought I was crazy, but it still worked.

It was then that I fully understood the difference between what Egyptians would argues is a true an Islamic Arab country, and an Islamic Democracy that happens to be in the West.  Not only did Turkish men not know Arabic (which I actually thought they might) but they had no qualms about saying that they were Muslim, and felt no need to learn Arabic (or adapt other mores of an Islamic Arabic society).

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