– Immensely horrific what happened in Istanbul with Sarai Sierra, the American lady.
When she disappeared and did not show up quickly enough, my heart became heavy of anticipation for a negative outcome. Not so much because it is that unsafe in Istanbul, in general it is quite the opposite, although there is, like in other big cities, the risk to be robbed even by organized mini-gangs, especially in very busy or very poor neighborhoods. And yes, as a tourist, or a touristy type of person, you can absolutely meet little or stronger harassment, intimidation and sometimes worse. And being a woman, especially a woman on her own, there are the gender defined extra risks, apart from the relatively innocent flirting of vendors, the risk of sexual harassment and worse, is not bound to any city or time.
At the moment I am staying with friends in Tarabya, in Northern-Istanbul and I had an appointment on Sunday to meet up with an old colleague of mine who now lives in Bakırkoy, so I took the underground from Hacı Osman to Taksim to continue with a bus, but not before having a cappuccino in Café Bookstore Mephisto on Istiklal Avenue.
The guys working there advised me on how to walk to the major bus-stop on Tarlibasi, just 300 meters distance.
As they suggested I took the short-cut and there starts the obviously gender and culture defined difference playing up.
Within exactly one minute I was in a completely different scenery. Is the Istiklal Avenue, a large and lustrous shopping street, the little streets I had to find my way in now, were much more narrow, real back-streets of a poor neighborhood kinda way..
The contrast was immediate and very intense. For Turkish young men not threatening at all but for an elderly absolutely as such recognizable European woman, walking there on her own, a completely different experience.
So yes, I started feeling a little unsure and a little insecure, especially because I could not see through and further, no main road in sight.
Now I have the luck to speak Turkish fluently and know usually what works best, indeed not only pretend that I belong, but really trying to radiate that in my body-language, indeed with my head up, without at any moment loosing respect for my surroundings and who is in there, sensing where it is better to make eye contact and ask for the right direction in a matter of fact way, or walk on and ignore men standing and sipping tea or sitting and playing backgammon.
So yes I had arrived within the blink of an eye in Poor but proud Istanbul, at least according to the New York Times in their article about the renovation of Tarlabası
No doubt colored by my anxiety I was a little stubborn and did not wait for the Dolmus or mini-bus mentioned by my friend, which is bringing you faster than the half an hour usual drive (that is if you are lucky) due going a little part of the route on the ring road around Istanbul.
Instead I took the first standard city bus with the right destination on it. Not after checking with the driver though, whether it indeed would bring me to Incirli road, were I wanted to go.
One day later I read two articles worth reading about the murder on Sarai Sierra.
In With your head up high by Frederieke Geerdink, I reckognize a lot of my own experiences although as mentioned I do not always feel safe and sound here and also try to trust my gut-feeling as much as possible in those cases, as in the past my naivety brought me in various dangerous situations.
I had my share of gender defined difficulties and try to stay more tuned with my inner antennas. Which includes the walking like I belong bit, like the Turkish women do, with my head up. As well trying to get information about neighborhoods upfront, preferably from different sources, as there is a different story from, for example, a Dutch correspondent living here since 5 years, male, and a Turkish modern woman who lives here all her life. Compare notes, and learn, is my device.
But what Alyson Neel is experiencing on a day to day basis, or so it seems, I cannot reckognize in the least.
She feels harassed every single day in Istanbul. I would love to spend one of those days together with her, and again, compare notes in the end, and analyze.
I meet and that is the case for 99,9% of the time, only helpful, friendly people. A barber who I go and ask for directions comes out of his shop to show me on the street where to go. Street vendors go out of there way to point out where the specific corner is where I have to go right. tattood ladies with a fag in there mouth nod when I ask if this is the right way to Tarlabsi. The one exception being one bus-driver yesterday who did not even take the effort to understand what I was asking him. I don’t romanisize but this is my experience so far and not Neels In Istanbul street harrasment is a constant.
So yes, speaking the language is an extreme advantage, but also the combination of attitude and a healthy portion of common sense all are quite valuable and important, and like in every big city, staying aware of your surroundings.
Even a couple of spoken words, especially the ‘No, thank you’ in combination sometimes with a polite but resolute ‘tesekurler’ when you are invited in a shop, guarantees more personal space than walking along and passing with a stiff face pretending you do not see or hear what is being said to you.
And I can only say: if you have to travel from Taksim, meaning Tarlabasi, to Bakirkoy, do take the big city bus and let the Dolmus pass, because I old fashionately feared for my life on the way back, as the driver of the mini-van was indeed making a totally irresponsible effort to get there faster than lightning.
So much may be clear, Sarai Sierra met the worst case scenario and yes it is a tight line of common sense, being well prepared and keep your eyes open.
I got out of the dolmus and walked the last 500 meters to the underground / Metro entrance of Taksim, as the traffic prevented him and us to move, and I continued my way.