Just after their flight arrived, Sankar had to take a long business phone call, so we headed to the airport Starbucks and ordered some coffee while we waited. I said something about this month being Ramadan, and Greg looked at me with concern, “Wait, are there Muslims here?”
Well, what did I know about Turkey when I was 22? Or eight months ago, for that matter.
Anyhow, we started talking about “scary Muslims,” and every so often we’d say to each other, “well, we’re having a really good time here, but it would be a lot better if people weren’t being so scary.”
Here is one of our “scary” stories.
The first day of Angela and Greg’s visit, the four of us went to sightsee in the Old City. Before we left, Angela showed me one of her pretty, copper-colored, bejeweled Roman sandals. The sole was starting to split apart, and I told her we could glue it back together right away, that she should wear something else. But she wanted to wear that pair, so off we went.
After Hagia Sofia and a bit of shopping, Sankar and Greg went home and Angela and I pushed on to the Grand Bazaar, an ancient maze of shops and assertive vendors, lots of junk and some treasures.
Several hours later, scarf and jewelry purchases in hand, we started back toward the New Mosque (built in the 1600s), to meet Umit. As we walked along the busy, narrow streets outside the bazaar, Angela tripped slightly, and one of the two straps holding her left foot to the sole of her sandal broke away. She began walking with a kind of limp, trying not to further damage it. I told her we could ask Umit if he knew a shoe repair person, and perhaps after a few days and not much expense, she could get the sandal back. “They were only $10 at Target,” she shrugged.
Soon we reached the New Mosque. Heading for our meeting place, we walked around the building on a large cement expanse, passing a wide set of stairs on which older men were sitting, enjoying the late afternoon sea breeze.
As we did this, Angela stumbled again, and this time the second strap on her left sandal broke. Her foot was now completely out of the sandal, but because the strap around her ankle still held, she was dragging it behind her. We both started laughing and she bent down and took the sandal off. The whole thing, sole and straps lay prone in her hand, like an open-faced sandwich.
We didn’t have far to go, and we walked slowly, she with one bare foot. As we looked for a bench to sit down on, I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was an old, slightly hunchbacked Turkish man. Without saying a word, he pointed at the shoe Angela was holding and then, nodding elaborately, gestured to our right, just past the mosque. It was then that four months of intensive Turkish enabled me to come forth with, “Ayakabba?” Shoe? and he nodded. Apparently help was just around the corner.
We thanked the man, headed back past the mosque, then immediately saw it, a little shoeshine/shoe repair operation right out in the open, complete with a small gold-horned stand to put your shoe over as it is being refurbished. A thin older man wearing a fez (headwear outlawed by Kemal Ataturk in 1925, but old men in Turkey don’t care; they are not applying for jobs or university entrance) smiled so broadly at us as we walked up that my first thought was, he is expecting us. Did the other man somehow call ahead and tell him we were coming? No, no, this was a simple operation. The shoe repair guy probably people-watched from the ankles down. And what a sight we made.
He took the shoe and expressed surprise that not only two straps, but the sole as well were damaged. “Cok problem,” we laughed, many problems. He turned back toward a worktable, grabbed a small plastic bottle of clear glue and began to fasten the sole and the straps back in place. Within two minutes the job was finished and, smiling, he handed the shoe back to Angela.
“How much? “ I asked him, and when he said three Turkish lira, about two dollars, I gave him a five note.
As we walked away, Angela and I talked about whose business it is when a stranger experiences a mishap. In our culture, we seem to believe it is not ours. I know I would turn away, embarrassed, if I saw an immigrant’s shoe fall off. I would be concerned about awkwardness, about possibly getting pulled into some larger neediness. But here the assumption is apparently the opposite. The man was no doubt sitting with his buddies when he noticed our mishap. Perhaps he thought for a moment about approaching two foreigners, but he was over at our side before we had gone twenty paces.
With over 15 million inhabitants, Istanbul is about five times bigger than the Twin Cities. It surely has its share of crime, but when people ask me if I feel safe here, I answer yes. I realize that, even though I read the English daily, I am not well-informed. Perhaps there is a serial killer stalking Istanbul’s streets. But part of assessing safety is listening to your gut. And the watchfulness here, the frequent, kind attentiveness that seems to reach across all ages and economic levels, gives me a positive gut feeling.
As we sat waiting for our driver, the sandal straps already firm (“this sandal is going to be stronger than the other one,” Angela commented, and I thought, how can I get hold of some of that glue?), traffic stopped and started around us and the air was heavy with humidity. Nevertheless, a glow of peacefulness and good will surrounded us. You could almost see it.