Tuesday, 29 November 2011

city of contrasts

Istanbul is a city of sharp contrast. 
The end of summer, bright sunlight streaming in streaks from between apartment buildings, two women in traditional dress, bend over hunks of cotton wadding, pulling them apart to air out .  The cotton is from their winter duvets.  By the end of the year the cotton tends to clump in large patches and sometimes starts to mildew.

Two large sheets are spread on the ground next to the solo “fart tree,” branches reaching desperately up in a vain attempt to capture a ray or two of sunshine.  The women wear flowered shalwar (low-crotched, baggy trousers), head scarves, and vests.  The scene looks like one that takes place regularly in villages all over Anatolia.

But here, in Tepebasi, we’re three minutes from the Pera Palace Hotel, where last week paparazzi took photos of Istanbul’s elite: movie stars, entertainers, journalists, all dressed in the latest western fashions.  Slim femme fatales in rocket-high-heels, mini-skirts, breast-revealing-bodices. Men in stone-washed jeans with hand-made rips, Prada sunglasses. Hip hop, trip hop blaring from speakers.

And I remember watching a mustachioed man seated on a low-to-the-ground, thatch stool in one of Istanbul’s old stone hans.  Hunched over a pair of jeans, holding a one-sided razor, he scraped away at the thigh of the jeans, creating a carefully crafted rip.  Next to him, on the floor, a pile of neatly folded, razor-ripped jeans lay stacked.  On the other side, a black plastic bag filled with un-scarred jeans.  A slim young boy with a silver tray filled with tiny tulip-shaped glasses of strong bitter black tea slid past, placed a fresh glass of tea next to the jean-slasher, picked up the used glass with the traces of tea leaves at the bottom, put it on his tray and scuttled away.

Inside our apartment, my house-mate Nefle and I stop talking.  Voices like the serenade of angels come from outside.  We rush to the doors of the tiny balcony, pull them open, and see two traditionally-built (like oblong bowling balls) long, tan-coated women in headscarves walking through the street singing and raising their hands up to the people who look down on them from their windows, listening.  The singers evoke the name of “Allah” and ask for donations.  Turkish paper liras flutter down to the street from balconies.  Coins hit the cobblestones and bounce. They finish their song, bend and pick up the money.  Continue on their way singing.

And still every evening, every night the blind singer and baglama player sits on his plastic stool somewhere on Istiklal.  His patient son sits next to him holding a microphone.  The son has sat like this for the last 8 years.  From a small boy to an adolescent with first traces of upper lip stubble.  He sits next to his singing, strumming father in summer and winter.  At the end of the day, they each pick up their plastic stools and the son leads his blind father home. 

Fifteen minutes from here there is a bar called “Kooperativ.”  Every Wednesday evening musicians from Turkey, Greece, the Balkans, Iran, France, all over Europe meet and jam.  Dreadlocks and beards.  Earrings and nose rings.  Klezmer music.  Persian music. A gathering without nationalism or religion.

Above French Street, one of the most fashionable and trendy places to drink an overpriced cocktail, an exhibition takes place in an art gallery.  The exhibition was created by a South African woman.  It’s about the trans-gender people of Istanbul.

And last month the air filled with waving red flags.  Turkish flags.  A small star and a large sickle blazing against a background of blood red. Istiklal Cadessi a sea of fluttering red flags.  Voices chanting over and over.  Voices shrieking against the PKK. 

As the sun sets the two women in shalwar gather up the cotton, sit together on the sheets laid on the ground next to the “fart tree,” and stuff cotton back into their winter sheaths, preparing for the inevitable Istanbul winter.  From the building next door comes the drone of an old Turkish folk song.  From the building on the other side a teenager blasts heavy metal. 

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Cultural Differences

My new friend M. is Kurdish.  He was born in a small village outside of Diyarbakir in the Southwest of Turkey.  An area of Turkey in constant turmoil.  Filled with Turkish army, police and security forces whose job it is to wipe out all Kurdish resistance.  Inhabited with people who are Kurdish.  Whose first language is Kurdish.  Whose dreams are for their own country: Kurdistan.

“I don’t understand Americans,” M. said as we sipped sweet bitter black tea in tiny tulip-shaped glasses.

We were seated outside in an old Istanbul courtyard surrounded by crumbling buildings. Modern young Turks filled the area, perched on tiny woven-topped stools at low tables.  Tables and chairs that looked more appropriate for kindergarten children than adults.

“This one American woman who is a musicologist asked me to translate some things from Kurdish to English for her,” M said.  “Then she asked me if I had a little time to talk. ‘Of course,’ I said.  So she asked me if I knew about the Alevis in Kurdistan.  I told her I knew a little.  And she asked if I minded if she turned on her tape recorder.  I told her ‘No, it’s not a problem for me.’"

M. sipped tea from his tiny glass as waiters passed balancing silver trays filled with tiny glasses of the reddish-bronze national beverage.

“So I told her what I knew.  When I finished she turned off the recorder, looked at her watch, and said: ‘That was forty-eight minutes.’ Then she pulled ten Turkish Lira from her purse and handed it to me.”

M. looked at me with an expression of complete dismay.  “Can you believe it?” he asked me.  “She asked me if I wanted to talk.  I told her ‘yes,’ and then she tried to pay me.  What is this?” he asked me.

“I asked her, ‘What is this money for?’ And she said—it’s for your time.  In America—time is money.’  I told her this is not America.  It is insulting to try and give me money for something I offered in friendship.  Here people are what is important.  And relationships.

M. shook his head in disbelief.

Around us Turks smoked and sipped tea and chatted about the world.  Packs of cigarettes were placed on the brown wooden tables for friends to share.  People picked up the bill and payed for their friends’ tea.

Hospitality and generosity still fill the hearts and souls of my Kurdish and Turkish friends here.

When I stood to leave M. and I kissed on both cheeks, hugged, and he insisted that he pay for my tea.

“I don’t want to start our friendship with an argument,” he smiled.  “I pay.”

I looked into his smiling black eyes and smiled back.  “Next time benden (from me),” I said.

I picked my way gingerly over the uneven cobblestones as I continue to try and pick my way over the uneven path of different cultures, struggling, and hopefully learning to live as a better human being.

Thursday, 28 July 2011


As she chopped vegetables, simultaneously preparing four dishes for the ten people she had invited to our flat for improvised music and dinner that evening, Kebire told me the story of how she scared a man with a gun.
“We were walking.  Asli (her daughter) was little.  Maybe 10.  We were on one street and nobody was there.  Then one man came.  He pointed one gun at us and said, ‘Give me your bag.’ I ran toward him with my hands out like claws screaming—Why you make this in front of my daughter and scare her???  I will eat you!!!  And he ran away.  Ha ha ha ha ha!”

It’s a true story. 
Kebire my dearest Turkish friend is a fierce Black Sea women. Big of heart. Big of spirit.  Generous. Afraid of nothing.  A mama bear.  A child of the socialist days of protest.

It is Kebire who accompanied me to my appointment at the Taksim Ilk Yardim Hastanesi today.

My appointment was for 9:30 but we first needed to first pick up a receipt and pay.

Like Moses parting the Red Sea, Kebire cleared a path to the registration desk. Talking to everyone in line, she immediately learnt the correct destination and steered me where I needed to go.  At   9:45 I entered the doctor’s cubby hole of an examination room.  He wrote a paper designating an ultra sound and some blood tests.  We exited the hospital at 10:30.  I paid the equivalent of $40 for an examination, blood tests and an ultra sound. 

By the time we exited, Kebire had lodged a formal complaint concerning the necessity of a screen that would allow all patients to view which patient’s examination was next in line.  She had helped a seriously obese woman in pain by getting her a slip for an immediate appointment.  And had talked to at least twenty people on various topics.
I return in one week to discuss the results of my tests with the doctor.  Alas, I’ll have to go without Kebire.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Bus Accients, Earthquakes and Strikes


I have no health insurance.  It hasn’t posed a problem.  I haven’t needed a doctor for eight years, since I left the states. 
Well, I lie.  Actually I had five treatments from an acupuncturist in Thailand.  And while in Malaysia, had a Chinese doctor remove the tube in my ear which my body had decided to reject.  Other than that – I’ve lived without problems, doctors, or treatments.

But thanks to genetics, I’ve inherited my mother’s gallbladder condition.  She had hers removed at the age of thirty-four.  Through healthy living, I’ve lived symptom-free since two initial attacks when in my early thirties.

It was Prague that done me in.  It only seemed right that I sample the local delicacy: fried cheese, fried potato pancakes and beer.  Enough cholesterol, fat, and grease to wreak disaster in the healthiest of systems.  Let alone a genetically vulnerable one. I had no idea upon ordering that I would be presented with two rounds of Czech’s equivalent of brie, breaded and fried, alongside three fat, deep-fried potato pancakes. 

The outcome: six hours of intense pain, swelling, difficulty breathing and a litany of self-remorse.
“Why did I eat all that fatty, greasy food?  It didn’t even taste that good.”

Back in Istanbul, I was back to my regular discipline of fruits and vegetables, but even so suffered a mild attack and realized it was time to seek professional help.

Through the help of the internet, I diagnosed myself and looked into treatments.  It was clear that I needed an ultra sound to discern how many stones I may have as well as their size.

But apparently, you can’t walk into a hospital and announce: “I want to have a gallbladder ultrasound.”  You have to make an appointment with a general practitioner who then refers you to a specialist who then orders the ultra sound.  I guess it would be like walking into surgery and saying: “I’ve checked things out and I’m pretty damn sure I need by-pass surgery, so I’ll be waiting out here in the corridor and anytime you’re ready, I’m available.  I’m paying for it and it’s what I want.”

Without insurance Turkish friends advised me to go to the public hospital, and my roommate, Mustafa accompanied me.  “No one there will speak English,” he said.

Because I’m a “Yabanci” foreigner, I, of course, don’t have a Turkish identity card.  This causes utter mayhem.  On every form there’s a space in which an identity card number must be written.
“Could I just use my passport number,” I ask hopefully.

No, it doesn’t fit the format.
 Nobody knows what to do with me.  We’re sent from one department to the next.

“No, I can’t help you here,” says the beleaguered man with the comb-over and rheumy eyes.
“Where do we go?’
“Try the ----- department.”
“We’ve already been there.  They said they can’t give us an appointment without a special number.  Where do we get this number?”
Mustafa’s inquiry gets cut off by an aggressive bowling bowl of a woman who pushes him aside like a tottering pin.
“Excuse me,” the polite Mustafa tries to regain his allotted speaking space.
“Go to the secretary,” Mr. Comb-over redirects his watery eyes from the bowling ball to the pin.
“We’ve been to the secretary.  She told us to come here.”
Meanwhile, waddling side to side like obese ducks, other disgruntled Turkish women in headscarves thrust receipts in front of us, wave pieces of paper shout questions.

At last we enter a little trailer parked behind the hospital.
Patience eroding, Mustafa asks the six men slouched behind computers, wearing jeans and t-shirts, playing computer games and checking face book, if they know how to get a foreigner a special registration number.

Bingo!  A chubby goat-teed guy with a Japanese top knot, wearing a yellow Brutus t-shirt gets me a number and makes me an appointment.


The day before my appointment, the bus I’m riding in is hit by a truck.  The window where I’m sitting smashed.  Glass fragments pelt me and the young woman seated opposite me.  In our hair, covering our skin, our clothes, imbedded in the scalp line at the back of my neck.  Women pick glass shards off of us.  Men offer the lemon cologne wet wipes given out at all restaurants.  And I thank and re-thank the person responsible for inventing shatter- proof glass, without which I would be in very serious shape. 

I make my way to my school.  Take a shower in the basement shower (only cold water) and rinse the tiny specks of glass off my body.

I manage to relax for an hour before I teach.

The first hour of class goes well.  Then the classroom starts to shake back and forth.

Deprem.”  Earthquake, says one of my students.

The classroom jiggles about like a gypsy dancer for one minute.  Then all is still.  The students opt to continue the lesson. 


At 9 am Tuesday morning I meet my dear Turkish friend E who prefers to remain anonymous.  We walk through the streets of Beyoglu dodging vans delivering goods to shops and arrive at the Taksim IlkYardim Hastanesi (Taksim FIrst Aid Hospital) only to find all the workers outside chanting, whistling, clapping, and singing songs.  All hospital personel: doctors, nurses, secretaries, clerks, everyone is on STRIKE.
Not fully comprehending the ramifications of this, we tromp into the hospital and go to the registration desk to get the official paper I’ll need to present in order to be seen by a doctor.  Of course there is no one behind the registration desk.  Lines of people stand before five empty counters.  People in the line discuss the strike and the implications for them.

Realizing that the strike will probably last all day, we decide to go back to “Brutus” in the trailer and make an appointment for another day.

Back in the trailer Big Brutus is busy on the internet changing his photo by rearranging facial properties like beards and moustaches.  He looks up as we stand by his desk.

“I need to make a new appointment because of the strike.” I say.

“Yeah,” he smiles, “probably won’t get seen today.”

So, he saves his newly handlebar moustached photograph and enters the appointment system.

“You know,” he says, “I’m not sure if you really should have an appointment in Urology or some other department.”

From the beginning I’d try to tell him that it should be gastroenterology not urology, but he insisted that if there were actually gallstones, it would be the urology department where I would need to be seen, but no stones, another department.

Since I couldn’t swear that I had stones, having never had an ultrasound, which was why I had come in the first place, he told us to go to the “Emergency Room,” and ask a doctor there.

But the doctors in the emergency room were the only docs not on strike and they were running around trying to help the people in varying states of medical emergencies.  E stopped and asked a cleaning man but he knew nothing, so we left.

Standing outside and looking at the groups of doctors sitting around, sipping tea and chatting, E suggested I ask one of them.  I walked over to a group of pale green jacketed people I assumed were doctors and asked in my sweetest Turkish if any of them knew English.  Most ignored me but one young woman answered.

I explained that I needed to know which department I needed an appointment for and she assured me that I should be seen in General Surgery.

E and I walked back to the trailer and big Brutus made me an appointment for Thursday at 9:30 for General Surgery.

Will I ever get my ultra sound?

Tune in next week for another exciting chapter in life in Istanbul

Sunday, 24 July 2011

It's the MUSIC

Everyday it’s changing so quickly.
One day there’s a neighborhood filled with groups of Roma children, mismatched clothes, newspapers filled with leftover scraps for the hoards of street cats, fat ladies scarved in bright floral bandanas  sitting on fabric spread on the ground.  Sipping tea in tiny tulip-shaped glasses, cracking sunflower seeds between their teeth.  The concrete around them a mosaic of discarded  black and white shells.  Lines of washing waving like banners across the street.
The next day it’s unrecognizable.  Chic boutiques all hard corners and edges.  Black and off-white designer clothes displayed at odd angles.
Where the fuck am I?

 Surely the old café filled with stooped old men sitting on woven-topped low stools, drinking bittersweet Turkish coffee from tiny doll-like cups, cigarette-stained fingers throwing tiny dice and slapping down backgammon pieces will still be on the corner.

And in its place some new European-style espresso bar.

So why do I stay, when everything around me is daily morfing into a western world I left behind?


 When Dave Brubeck composed and released “Take 5,” it was hailed as a revelation.  5/4 count.  Wow! How revolutionary.

The ordinary Turkish boy sits beating 5/8, 7/8. 9/8 count on his thigh as easily as he breathes. Even the ice cream vendors, and corn-on-the-cob hawkers beat rhythms on their carts as complex as a jazz virtuoso.   Musicians here blend Greek , Armenian, Balkan and Turk music. The normal western music scale is comprised of twelve notes.  The Turkish: fifty-rwo.  Turks sing and play notes on instruments impossible for my grossly accustomed ear to even differentiate.

And when the music starts everyone leaps to his feet.  Hips swivel. Shoulders shimmy.  And young and old, Turk and foreigner dance together in  keyfi: celebration of life.

Roma Music

Selim Sessler, takes his seat, lifts his clarinet to his lips, nods his head to his musicians and transports us to his village of Kesan in  Thrace.  In the documentary film his son Bulent made about their village, it seemed like every other person was a proficient musician.  Baby boys in diapers beat sauce pans in complex rhythms.  Baby girls start wiggling their hips and shimmying their shoulders before they can stand. The men who aren’t musicians are frog catchers.                                                                 

Why wasn’t I born there?

I climb the 6 flights up to Araf (a world music club named for the place between heaven and hell).  The lifts not working again.  The wail of Selim’s clarinet pierces through to my solar plexus.  I don’t even bother to sit.  Just toss my bag onto the floor and start dancing.  Within a few minutes I’m joined by dancers in front and back of me.  Together we dance, shake, shimmy, smiling smiling.  Selim’s son Bulent strums the zither, donkey-eyes sails on the gypsy fiddle, and the darbuka player’s fingers takatakatakataka in lightning speed.


 There is no moment but now.  And this now, is my heaven.

For some videos of selim see below.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Gay Pride Istanbul

Taksim swirls in rainbow colors.  The Samba Protest Band beats drums, shakes tambourines, strikes cow bells.  Daniela decked out in a hot-pink boa, yellow, pink and green feathers like a bouquet in her wild black curls beats a Latin syncopation; Ruzgar, the 22-year-old trans Rasta, who used to call herself my “mother” (until she wrote me an email one day giving me the news that my “mother” had decided to stop shaving her/his beard and go through the world as a man and consequently was now my “father”) pounds a daval with big mallets, whistles, gestures and leads the Samba band,  his beautiful face covered with multi-colored sparkles. Men dressed in fishnet stockings, tiny cupey doll skirts, rainbow-colored headdresses strut as the parade makes its way from the square along Istiklal Caddesi (Independence Avenue). Lesbians with painted on twirling black moustaches and ballet tutus whoop and clap.  One man wears a Mexican sombrero.  One girl is dressed in a garish Thai costume.  The street is awash in rainbow color and gay drumming, whoops and dancing and big smiles.  From the terraces along the avenue people wave and cheer, some waving rainbow flags.   
For today Istanbul is a celebration of diversity. 

istanbul gay pride march sunday june 26

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Song of Istanbul

The Song of Istanbul

Listen.  It’s a symphony.  An all-day symphony.
Beginning at the moment when dawn lifts its puffy eye lids .
Wait – even before first light it begins.

The prelude: andantino
Rhythmic steps of the Imam on his way to the mosque.
The click click click of his heels on the dew-slick cobblestones.
The electric clack as he turns on the microphone in the minaret's black chamber.
“Allah akbar!” he sings out at the precise moment when the sun slips its red-polished fingernails
over horizon’s gray wool blanket.

 The 1st movement in our symphony commences. Adagio

One after another after another after another, muezzins call the faithful to first prayer, 
                                      their voices
in a helical
waltz of sound.

A primal elementary song of soul-searing Truth wafting through dawn’s damp. Its notes playing along oriental meridians, pushing mystic pressure points.

At Galata Tower, thick brown dogs lift their heads from slabs of cardboard placed there for them by doggy lovers.  They blink, yawn, raise themselves off their night time beds and howl along with the imam, welcoming the new day.

Mauve doves, gray-blue pigeons, and sea gulls ruffle their dew-coated feathers and flap flap flap their wings rising up to circle the Tower.
Seagulls dip and pivot, cawing their first entry into the performance
As the doves cooo cooo cooo in velvet undertones like do-wop back-up singers.

2nd movement: Andante
The parade begins:
"Demir! Demir!"
“Demir!” “Demir” Iron! Iron! Sing out the men pushing their weathered-gray, rough-hewn hand carts, beseeching souls to donate scrap metal to their carts.

Then a hush.

Slowly from the main street the low rumbling of voices--fruit and vegetable hucksters theme song.  The sound growing and growing until the truck turns the corner, enters our street, and the amplified voice of the driver blasts out:” Tomatoes! Potatoes! Green beans! And then in a note held like the finale in a street opera: “Oniooooooooooooonnnnnnnnnnnnnnns.”

The baskets are lowered from the windows, raised again filled with red red tomatoes, or green cucumbers, potatoes or onions.

Hush. Hush. Hush.

“Kastamonu sarimsak!”  “Taze Kastamonu sarimsak!” a husky male voice cries. Fresh garlic from the garlic capital – Kastamonu.
A warble begins from the corner.  The old mustachioed Turk walks his weary walk bleating his weary cry: 
“Yatakci ci ci ci  ci…” “Bedman  man man man man.” And what does this “bedman” do?  He carries a special tool.  A tool for pulling apart the cotton that has become lumped and hardened in the old cotton mattresses.  Re-fluffing it, adding space and air, transforming it to a soft lush bed of  drowsy comfort.
“Yatakci  i i i !” sung like the sound of shivering, teeth chattering—filling you with the longing for the warmth of a cozy bed on a dark cold morning.

The sun rises in the sky.  New performers appear on the stage.
“La la la la. La la la la la la. Ay Gaz!” blares the recorded song from the natural gas truck, steel-gray canisters of natural gas bouncing about in the back of the pick-up. A sweet female voice repeats this melodic refrain over and over as the “Yatakci” bleats and the fading melody of the vegetable man recedes.

3rd movement: Allegro
(Song of the women and children)

“Fatma! Hadi!” Fatma hurry!
“Buraya gel!”Come here!
“Anne! Anne! Anne!” Mother! Mother! Mother!
Squeals giggles orders complaints pleading squabbling shouts and shrieks!
Squeals giggles orders complaints pleading squabbling shouts and shrieks!
Squeals giggles orders complaints pleading squabbling shouts and shrieks!

“Ben geldim! Gidiyorum!  Ben geldim! Gidiyorum!” I came. I’m going.  I came. I’m going. The song of the poaji man.  Cherry cheeks.  White hair.  Short and squat.  He makes his rounds of the neighborhoods carrying his two woven baskets filled with Turkish cheese pastries.  The children run and flock to him like the pied piper.  They slap his hands and circle round as he trods the dirty old streets of Istanbul trying to sell a pastry or two.

Then another hush.  Early evening’s quiet.  The rustle of pots and pans.  The sizzle of frying onions.  The clatter of dinnerware. 
The final belch!

Grand Finale: The Night’s Vivace.

In Beyoglu the finale starts its crescendo.
The popcorn man pops his corn over his portable stove: pop pop pop pop
“Sicak poacha!” sings out Murat pushing the two-wheeled cart holding the warm fresh pastries baked by his wife. “Hot pastries!”

“Taze badem! Taze badem!” Fresh almonds! Cry out the men sliding through the alleys filled with young Turks, middle-aged Turks, men, women drinking beer, smoking cigarettes, poking at plates of meze. As the almond seller lowers his tray of peeled fresh almonds on ice.

Boom! Boom! Boom! Pounds the bass from the amplified music of the bars.  Boom! Boom! Boom Boom!
Taze badem!
Sicak poachi!
Balon! Balon! Calls out the man holding a bouquet of red balloons.
And gypsy musicians beat a 9/8 rhythm on their darbukas as the clarinet wails.
The pop corn pops, the sellers yell, heels click

Until 2 am or 3am.

night’s black berka slides over the form of beyoglu, covering her curvaceous body from the eyes of the lusty, and the 2-wheeled pop corn carts are chained up, the unsold almonds tossed into trash cans, music systems shut down, and the snores of saints and sinners alike saw away at night’s stillness.

Friday, 8 April 2011

Turning 'Dirty Harry' Diane in Egypt

Bread line in Luxur

The short plump receptionist at the Venus Hotel in Luxor, Egypt insisted that the street noise completely died down at 10.  He tugged at the brim of his NYPD baseball cap and eyed me up and down.

Staring into the darkness, wide awake at 2am, the scream of cars, motorbikes and trucks winding their way in front of the hotel was not exactly a lullaby.  And for reasons only known to the drivers, a cacophony of horn blaring was also part of the late night serenade. At about 3am I fell into a blessedly needed sleep only to be roused at 5am by the screaming of the muezzin from the mosque next door inviting the reverent to prayer.

We had come to Egypt post-revolution to support the brave souls who had struggled so valiantly and non-violently for democracy.  We would spend a little money in this now non-touristed country and I hoped to be able to write several articles when I returned to my home in Istanbul encouraging all who had ever wanted to visit Egypt to do so now.

 After breakfast at the hotel we made our way through the souk to the Nubian Coffee House.  Enroute every man in front of every stall barraged us with sales pitches.  Pushed shawls into our faces.  Kept up a non-stop verbal drone:
                “Madame where you from?”
                "Madame, you France?”
                “Madame, want pyramid?”
                “Madame, me best price.”
                " Madame, why you no stop?”
                 "Madame.  Madame. Madame."

We sat down at an outside table across from the local oven.  Men in long shirt-collared dresses and scarves wrapped around their necks stood in line waiting for the rounds of fragrant fresh bread to be passed out through the open window.  From the store next to us the smells of Egyptian musk, amber, and hibiscus wafted over to us. 
Having been grossly overcharged for a “Turkish coffee” the day before in Aswan, Daniela and I had vowed to ask the price before ordering. When the sweet young waiter came to take our order we ripped into him.
 “How much is it?” we demanded.
              “Five pounds,” he stammered recoiling from the onslaught of our aggression.
              “With sugar?” we asked, perhaps a bit more forcefully than necessary.
              “Yes,” he said eyes wide with alarm.
              “Okay, sorry,” we apologized somewhat abashed at our response.  And left a generous tip trying to make up for our rudeness.

I am not a rude person.  Daniela is not a rude person.  But something was happening to us.  The non-stop assault by touts and hawkers was eroding our normal decorum.  Overcharged, taken to places we didn’t want to go, our every step barraged by: “Where you from?  Madame come here! You want Felucca?  You know how much?  Best price.  Only 50 Egyptian pounds.  Maybe later, okay?” Men following us, talking incessantly into our ears, pushing their faces into ours, blocking our way: “You remember me?” My name Omar, Ahmed, Hamdi, Mohammed, Nassar and even Ziggy. “I wait here, okay?”  “You promise, okay?”  “You want husband? I have the big one.”

At first we tried to be polite.  Walking along the Nile on our first day in Aswan we were happy and relaxed.  “No thank you,” we said to the first tout.  He kept following.  “La shukran,” we tried in Arabic.  He continued pitching his felucca.  I turned, looked straight into his black eyes, and said firmly: “We took a felucca yesterday. We don’t want to take a felucca again today.” But undeterred he walked alongside us.  When he finally dropped off, the next one in a long line of white–robed touts attacked.  Lined up along the promenade above the Nile, they looked like roosting egrets waiting to pounce on prey.  They followed, mouths to our ears.  Over and over repeating prices, promises.  Blocking our path: Caleche, Madame?  Felucca, Madame?  Spices, Madame?
                “Come here!”
We tried to ignore them.  But like hungry 
mosquitoes they whined in our ears. Like angry bees they buzzed around our heads. 
I started to get firmer:  “No!  We don’t want a Felucca or a Caleche.”  No!  We don’t want to drink anything. We do not want to buy anything right now.”
                “Maybe later?”
                “Yes, maybe later,” Daniela would say.
                “You look like Chakira,” they repeated over and over to Daniela. 
                “You look like Egyptian,” they told her.  She’s Italian.

Then we tried speaking in Turkish.  Acting like we didn’t know any English, we stared at them blankly, shook our heads as if not comprehending.  Jabbered in Turkish. Undeterred by a language they didn’t know they prattled on in French, Spanish, Italian.  Finally, I reached the end of my endurance.  I cracked.  I, a tiny, sixty-three-year-old, forty-six kilo woman suddenly metamorphosed into Dirty Harry.

The dark-green gowned, dark-skinned Egyptian trailed alongside us unsuspecting. Never realizing that the petite old lady he was hounding was really Dirty Harry.
                “Felucca, Madame?  You know price?  You know price?  Fifty Egyptian pounds.  Best price.  You take?”  He followed us delivering  a non-stop diatribe of pleading, coaxing, haranguing, wheedling.
                I turned in front of him and stopped. A woman whose shell had cracked wide open.  And emerging from the shell, sprung a fully-formed, and ultimately dangerous Clint Eastwood.  My eyes narrowed into slits of pure malice.  I had become Dirty Harry.
Feluccas on the Nile
                ‘I killed my last Felucca driver,” I hissed out between clenched teeth.  You want me to kill you?  Come on let’s go to your Felucca.  Make my day.”  I stood before him jaw set, body tensed.  I drew my index finger across my throat while staring him down.
                “No Madame.  Don’t kill me!” he whispered scuttling backwards until he turned and fled in the opposite direction.
                It was then that I noticed the look on Daniela’s face.
                “You scared me,” she said and then we both started laughing so hard we were bent over, tears rolling down our faces.
I’m normally a mild-mannered woman.  A lover of humanity.  Compassionate.  Empathetic. I understand this is their job.  They have families to feed.  Bills to pay.  I forgive them all.
 But when a strange man touches me, blocks my path, lies to me or deceives me, I turn into Dirty Harry.  It took Luxor to provoke this transformation.

Then one smiling man shouted “Hello!  Welcome!”
We kept walking, ignoring him.
               “Welcome Madame!” he sang out again.
We avoided eye contact.
                “What’s wrong with you? Why are you so unfriendly?  I just welcome you to my country and you can’t even smile or say hello.  You are not women!”         

We tried to explain. “Because there are so many men who…”
                “No,” he insisted. “You are wrong!  You can smile.  Say hello.  You are not women!”  He turned and walked away scowling.

And in the end we’re the ones who are made to feel wrong.

We walked along the Corniche.  The blue Nile shimmering on our right.  The ancient one-sail feluccas gracefully skimming its calm surface, our heads bent in shame, feeling like we’ve failed ourselves, behaved less than admirably.

The massive papyrus columns of Karnak’s Hypostyle support our weight as we lean against them 
 spotlighted in rays of sunlight, reflecting on our journey.
Travel teaches so much.  Many of its lessons are unpredictable and unsolicited.  But always, a learning process.