Random Shopkeepers Call Me Brother

I spend my days strapping Syrian and Lebanese preteens into flight simulators, and fall asleep at night while packs of stray dogs rumble outside my bedroom window. Such is my life in Turkey.

I live in an industrial zone which will never see the inside of a Lonely Planet guidebook, at an international science school whose students are stellar but whose management is strained and sketchy. And so at every day’s end, I hop on a dolmus and roll into the nearest three-million person city, where I know no one and speak Turkish that would embarrass a newborn. I hope for the best.

I stumble upon a raucous celebration rolling down the streets of Alsanjak, the downtown thoroughfare, as a Turkish flag the size of a football pitch dangles over the main drag. This is apparently Youth and Sports Day, which is a month after National Sovereignty and Children’s Day, and a few months before Victory Day. On third-story balconies, grizzled old Turkish men hold out portraits of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk: army officer, father of modern Turkey, and de facto secular saint. He had blue eyes, like mine, and a month from now a Turkish fashion designer will open an exhibit called, ‘The Blue Eyes of Freedom.’ Occasionally, I will catch a new Turkish friend suddenly staring fondly at my corneas, and it’s really rather unnerving.

There is a shop, located a few miles down from work, which sells amulets, concentric circles of bright blue glass. Turks, just like Israeli Jews or Mexican Catholics, believe that the evil eye – an envious or vindictive gaze – can bring misfortune down upon your head, so there is a whole industry in this country devoted to amulets called nazar boncugu, ‘evil eye stones’. I see them downtown nailed into the wall over the tellers at CitiBank, and babies have them fixed to their lapels to prevent colic and SIDS. I buy a few to hang on doorways of future apartments. This shop also raises peacocks. One particularly angry albino makes a lunge for my Achilles’ heel.

I am also mugged, very politely, by Kurdish street children in a Turkish cemetery. They don’t mug me directly: they simply assault me with youthful vigor, move far too fast for me to keep track of all of them, and hope that my anti-robbery radar short circuits at the sheer absurdity of my situation. Because their hardscrabble cuteness is the ultimate weapon.

One weekend, I am invited with my coworkers onto a personal boat as it motors off into the Aegean Sea. We make a beeline for an island that is famous for being strewn with malnourished donkeys, and after swimming ashore my coworker feeds them Gummi Bears. And while practicing our breaststroke in water that sparkles like crystal, we hear a sudden roar overheard, and look up just in time to see two F-16s screaming in the direction of Greece.

I often go out and have drinks on the waterfront, as cargo ships float by and out to sea. One day, I discover that Apocalyptica, a Finnish-cello rock group that covers Metallica songs, is playing at the local open-air theater, and so I spend two hours surrounded by an arena of Turks singing the words to ‘Enter the Sandman’ and ‘Master of Puppets.’ Afterwards, I wander into a downtown club called BIOS – which stands for Basic Input/Output System, as in the computer code – and dance to American rock songs, played live, that I haven’t heard since grade school.

My hat – a felt fedora that I wear damn near everywhere – gets noticed more than I do. In a move to modernize Turkey, Ataturk actually passed the Hat Law of 1925, in which he banned the traditional fez as a symbol of oriental backwardness and made hat-wearing compulsory by civil servants. But no one wears hats these days, and so I might as well have stepped straight out of a Dick Tracy cartoon. My beloved headwear gets passed around like the village bicycle, while a 6′9″ African man, who never says a word, spends the entire night calmly plucking my hat off the heads of random Turks, wearing it for a just a minute, and then passing it on.

And outside of Armenian genocide, a divisive history with Greeks and Kurds, and a salty yogurt drink called ayran that tastes absolutely vile, there’s only one thing about Turkey that gets my goat:

After working fourteen-hour days, don’t pay me with fake money, for crying out loud! It makes me quit.

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