April 7, 2006

Turkish Surprise

ISTANBUL – Before heading out on my next self-selected assignment I met my old friend Sean LaFreniere in Istanbul. He’s in Denmark getting his Masters in Architecture at the Royal Academy. I urged him to come out and visit me in the East. He had never left the comfort zone of Western Civilization and had a hard time believing me when I told him the Islamic East is a far more interesting – and pleasant – place to visit than Western Europe. But he was intrigued all the same and said he looked forward to hanging out with Turks instead of Danes for a change.

“Be careful out there!” his Danish friends said, as though Turkey were teeming with dragons, cannibals, or cartoon-hating Islamist fanatics who wanted to kill him. “Isn’t it dangerous?” one of his professors said. “Don’t let anyone know you’re American or living in Denmark!”

Sigh. Istanbul is in all liklihood safer than Copenhagen. But you just can’t convince some people.

Sean’s plane was a day late due to a KLM Airlines snafu, and he arrived exhausted and grumpy. “I need a drink,” he said. “Is it even possible to get a drink in this country?”

“This is Turkey!” I said. “You can get a drink in even the smallest mountain village in Anatolia.” I’ve only been to one Muslim country that bans alcohol, and that was Libya. It’s available most other places.

It does not cease to amaze me how much the Iranian mullahs and the deviant Arabian Wahhabis have managed to convince Westerners that their reactionary ideologies are somehow mainstream and normal in the Middle East. The hard-line booze-banning and jihad-raving fanatics are marginal and extreme almost everywhere outside a few strongholds.

“Come on, Sean,” I said. “Let’s get you a drink.”

We went restaurant and bar-hopping in Beyoglu, the fashionable and cosmopolitan core of Istanbul.

Beyoglu at Night 2.jpg

We found a restaurant in a brick and stone building that was surely older than our own country.

“Do you have any, um, alcohol?” Sean said sheepishly to the waiter.

The waiter blinked. “Of course,” he said, and shook his head slightly.

“Okay,” Sean said and smiled with mild embarrassment.

I don’t mean to poke fun at my friend here. It’s in large part the media’s fault that Westerners have peculiar ideas about what Muslim countries are actually like. The Middle East section of major newspapers might as well be renamed When Muslims Behave Badly. When shit blows up, it makes the news. The slogans of lunatic Hamas-bots in Palestine make the news. When the Syrian Baath bussed in a rent-a-mob from Damascus to torch the Danish embassy in Beirut, that made the news.

Journalists don’t deliberately try to make the Middle East look crazier, more dangerous, and more reactionary than it really is. Suicide bombers are genuinely more newsworthy than the nightlife scene in Istanbul. Saudi Arabia’s weird laws rightfully get more attention than the lack of such weirdness in Turkey, Lebanon, the UAE, Tunisia, Morocco, and other reasonable Muslim-majority countries. The normal qualities of the Middle East are rarely documented about outside the travel writing genre. The fact that you can legally get drunk in Istanbul, Cairo, Beirut, Ramallah, Amman, Casablanca, Tunis, Dubai, etc., is only remarkable to people who have never been to those places.

Beyoglu at Night.jpg

Sean and I ate our steaks, drank our wine, and moved on to a nightclub that pumped trance and rave music through its outdoor speakers. We found a table. Almost everyone in the place likewise sat at a table. Very few people got up and danced. The club had the feel of a Middle School sock hop where everyone was too shy to get out there.

Some people did dance, though, and Sean noticed what was odd before I did.

“Look,” he said. “Men are dancing together. Women are dancing together.”

He was right. The club was segregated by gender. Men and women sat together. But they didn’t dance together. Men danced only with other men. Women danced only with other women.

It wasn’t a gay club. It was an Islamic club where too much contact between unmarried singles was to be avoided. You wouldn’t think at first glance to find that kind of conservatism inside. None of the women were veiled. None wore a headscarf over their hair. They wore tight pants, knee-high boots, and looked, well, hot for the most part. The club was fully modern in every way except for the segregation on the dance floor.

“This country sure is conservative,” Sean said.

“Wait,” I said. “Don’t judge an entire culture by the first place you pop into. Let’s move to another club.”

We moved to another club. Since we didn’t know where to go, we just walked into places at random. That, we would later find out, was a mistake.

Our second club was a metal-head bar. It was almost all men in there. They wore Motley Crue and Metallica t-shirts. Long stringy hair, oversized moustaches, and jailhouse tats were the norm. A live band played on the stage. Young hard rocking Turks literally banged their heads to the guitars. No wonder there weren’t many women inside.

“Do you want to get a beer?” Sean said.

“I’m happy to see this place exists in Istanbul,” I said and laughed. “But it isn’t our scene.”

So we moved on again.

We found a place above a restaurant that featured live Turkish folk music, exotic songs from the Eastern mountain towns of Anatolia. Dashing young urbanized men and women, most of whom were probably secular, danced together in a circle in the center of the room. The dance was complicated, unpredictable, and involved the twirling of unfolded napkins from the tables. Everyone knew the steps. It looked fun. I would have liked to join in, but this entertainment was clearly only for Turks. As liberal, modern, and secular as Istanbul may be, the people have not forgotten who they are or where they came from.

Sean and I were getting woozy from booze, but we were on vacation and still only blocks from our hotel. We needed to find at least one other scene. So far each place we had been to was radically different from all the others.

We walked. A tout stood in front of a nightclub and beckoned us in.

“Is this a good place?” I said.

“It’s a great place!” the tout said. “And there isn’t a cover charge.”

“Okay,” Sean said. “Let’s check it out.”

We went in and checked it out. Loud techno music pulsed from the speakers. Men and women sat together at the bar and at tables. A dance floor was lit up on the mezzanine bathed in pink light. Sean and I walked toward it.

“Sit here, sit here,” a waiter said and pushed us toward a table.

“We want to go up there,” I said.

“No, please, sit here,” he said.

Okay, I thought. Whatever. So we sat.

“What would you like to drink?” he said.

“I’ll have a beer,” I said.

“Make that two,” Sean said.

The waiter brought us two beers, even though we didn’t specify which kind we wanted. Who knew what kind they had? It didn’t matter.

Two young women abruptly sat at our table without asking, one on my right and one on Sean’s left.

Oh, I thought. We’re in one of those places. There was no indication on the outside, unless we missed it.

“Hello,” said the girl on my right. “Buy me a drink?”

What the hell, I thought. I knew what kind of place we were in, and I knew that it could mean trouble. But I was curious at the same time. I had never been in a prostitute bar before. I wanted to play it out for a few minutes just to see how it goes. What’s the procedure? How do these places work anyway?

“Sure,” I said. “I’ll buy you a drink.” I looked at my watch. We couldn’t stay more than five minutes. I would have to think of a way to get out of there without being rude.

The waiter came back. The two girls ordered two beers. The waiter brought the two beers. Now it was me, Sean, and two hookers from wherever hookers in Turkey come from. I doubted they were actually locals, but it was impossible to tell just by looking at them. Turkish is an ethnicity, not a race. The facial features and skin tones of Turks are all over the gene map.

“Where are you from?” said the girl to my right.

“United States,” I said.

“Where?” she said.

“America,” I said. “Where are you from?”

“Russia,” she said.

“Ah,” I said. What the hell was I supposed to say?

Sean abruptly stood up. “We have to get out of here now,” he said.

Of course we had to get out of there. But I wanted to finish my beer. What’s the worst that could happen if we only stayed for five minutes?

I summoned the waiter and paid him while Sean stood there tapping his foot and craning his head toward the door. The bill came to 20 dollars. I thought Sean was over-reacting. We weren’t being charged for the women.

He all but ran toward the front door.

“Excuse me,” I said to the Russian ladies. “I need to go with my friend.”

On my way past the bar I noticed a distinctively male looking person wearing lipstick and a dress.

Sean bolted into the street. I followed him out.

“Do you know what that place is?” he said.

I had an idea.

“Tell me,” I said. “Tell me it’s not what I’m thinking.”

“It’s a she-male hooker bar.”

“Are you sure?” I said.

“When the girl on my left asked me where I was from, it was obvious she was a man.”

We laughed and called it a night.

“You still think this country is uptight and conservative?” I said.

“It’s not what I expected at all.”

“The girl to my right made an awfully convincing woman,” I said. “It’s a good thing I wasn’t looking to pick up a prostitute. That could have been ugly.”

What amazes me most is that this fine upstanding establishment hired a guy to pull random tourists in off the street. What are the odds that two Americans who happen to be walking by are looking for prostitutes at that particular moment? We weren’t in a red light district. We were downtown. And what are the odds that two random Americans who are looking for prostitutes are looking for she-males? Pretty damn low, I should say. When you’ve got that kind of business model, it’s probably best to let customers come to you.

Sean hadn’t yet spent eight hours of his life in a Muslim country. Yet already he found himself, by sheer chance, inside a place more sexually decadent than anywhere he had ever been in the U.S. or Europe.

The East is full of surprises. The East as portrayed in the media – the East of burkhas, prohibition, jihad, and camels – is a cartoon.

Post-script: I didn’t go to Turkey to work. I went to Turkey for fun and to see my friend Sean. But if you enjoy reading these posts and decide to hit the tip jar, I promise not to get mad.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at April 7, 2006 6:53 PM
Winner, The 2007 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

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