James Tressler / @ 9:42 a.m. / Letter From Istanbul

Letter from Istanbul: Immigrant Tales


I had to get up very early on Thursday morning to meet Çetin.

After many months, my work permit had finally been approved by Ankara authorities. Now, we just had to take the documents to the Foreign Police office in Istanbul to have them registered in my residency permit.

We met at the pier in Kadikoy to get the ferry boat over to the European side. It was just after six o’clock, and the first of the morning’s first commuters were arriving – mostly civil servants, a few university students. The Bosphorous itself was calm, and the sea birds were still sleeping on the crests of gentle waves.

As the ferry boat cranked up, the sea birds awoke, and they followed us, swirling about, as we began the journey. Çetin, who was going along in case there were any problems, rested his head on his chest and dozed. He’s a short, wiry Black Sea Turk, with salt-and-pepper hair and a gruff manner. At the school we call him, Kızgın Çetin (“Angry Çetin”) because of his notorious short temper, but in these situations, where as a foreigner you have to deal with the authorities, he’s a blessing.

Anyway, while Çetin dozed, I went and had a cup of Turkish tea. It had been a long time since I’d taken a ferry boat over to the European side, and I’d never taken one so early in the morning. The vast city, stretching across two continents, as seen by ferry boat, is always the city seen for the first time, to steal a phrase from F. Scott.

We passed the shipyards, which at that hour were still quiet, and a fleet of silhouetted birds perched along the sea wall. Only the lights of the Blue Mosque could be seen as we rounded Golden Horn. The Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace were still dark.

We rounded the Horn, with the European side of the city approaching, Galata Tower nestled high up in Beyöğlu. The morning traffic on the highways and bridges was slowly beginning to pick up. We on the ferry boat, with the blue-grey waters churning, felt like lonesome travelers in the dawn, with all the great city spread around, rocked and nurtured by the centuries and the sea.

We arrived at the iskele at Eminönü.

Hadi, gel, James! Come on!” said Çetın, who woke up and immediately set off in his brisk way. We weaved and dodged crowds of commuters.

It always felt different arriving on the European side. There was the bustle of people on their way to catch the buses and ferries, the street sellers already hawking their goods, the bell and hum of the trams, the car horns … Not that it was any different from our side of the city in that respect, but it just seemed at times as if the tumult here seemed to have its own destiny, as we on the Asian side had ours.

The Foreign Police office was located in Fatih, a district some distance from the waterfront. We would have to get a tram, then transfer to the metro. But when the tram came, suddenly the lights went out on the tram. A message on the loudspeaker, in Turkish, informed us that the power was out on the tram.

Cursing in Turkish, Çetin signaled hurriedly for me to follow. We got off, along with everybody else. We crossed a busy intersection. Çetın enquired at a kiosk about buses, then we crossed under the roadway and eventually found a bus that would take us all the way to Fatih and directly to the police station.

It was a grey morning, and the bus took us out to the old Roman aquaducts, past the ancient Constantinople walls, and soon we were in the Fatih district.

We got off the bus, and went to the headquarters. It had been three years since I’d been there (for my residency the past three years, renewals had conveniently been done in my own neighborhood of Kadikoy). Here now in Fatih, everything looked pretty much as I remembered it.

That morning the Foreign Police office wasn’t too crowded. We passed through the security check point, and up the steps to the main compound. So far so good, I thought. We’re here, half the battle is done. Now, it’s just a matter of waiting for our number to come up, and to get the business done.

But in the back of my mind, there was the anxiety that always comes when having to make the journey to the Foreign Police office. Memories of Prague, of waiting outside all night alongside hundreds of people, everyone tired, frustrated and rude, sometimes the crowds often erupting into violence. The hassles, the run-around, the bureaucrats with their seemingly endless capacity for finding reasons to make you come back another day … these things floated in the back of my mind.

More than those Prague memories were more immediate concerns. In the wake of an ongoing corruption scandal, hundreds of police have been sacked in Istanbul, and all over Turkey. The scandal has been seen by the press as a political battle between the country’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and supporters of a retired conservative religious cleric, Fethullah Gulen. Erdogan has characterized the scandal as a “foreign plot” aimed at unseating his ruling AK Party, which has been in power for the past decade. Also, local elections are just a few months away.

With all the upheaval in the police force, and the attendant political backdrop, I wondered if there would be some spillover effect. Perhaps there could be a backlash against foreigners living in Istanbul, sudden, inscrutable changes in policy regarding work or residency papers. It was early morning, bleary-eyed speculation, I know, but these thoughts lingered with my ever-present unease when in the presence of large numbers of police.

Anyway, we went upstairs to the second floor, where people were already waiting. It was by then a little past eight o’clock. The offices wouldn’t open for another half hour. Çetın, as was his way, nervously and periodically double checked my passport, residency and working papers, and paced around.

There were scores of people. Most of the women occupied the available seats, and men stood in clusters. I heard lots of Arabic, especially from the groups of young men, who appeared to have one man as a sponsor, who was helping them with the process.

“Are they Syrians?” I asked Çetın.

Evet,” he said, nodding. “Suriye.”

They were men, of varying ages, and their wives and young children. I thought about the ongoing civil war just over the border to the southeast. Hundreds of thousands of refugees have poured into Turkey over the past couple years. Many of them are still camped out in tents at the border. But many have made their way to Istanbul as well. I’ve even noticed on Facebook a Help Syrians in Istanbul page, which allows people to give donations and assistance.

One Syrian woman, covered in traditional Muslim dress but her face uncovered, waited along with three children, all of them dressed warmly in winter coats.

“If you’re too hot, take off your hats,” she said, addressing the children in perfect English.

It was on the tip of my tongue to ask her where she had learned English, but then thought, no, this isn’t the time or place. The woman probably just wants to get her papers in order and get the hell out of here, like you do.

Just then, Çetın called me from inside the office, which had opened. We went to an available counter, and Çetın handed the clerk my papers. The clerk asked Çetın various questions, and typed things into his computer. I let Çetın take care of everything, and just stood mutely, like an Ellis Island immigrant in “The Godfather” movies.

Always, on such occasions, I am reminded of how our ancestors newly arrived to America must have felt; it’s a humbling, depressing, odd feeling – vitalizing and yet devitalizing at the same time. You feel some sort of self-abnegation going on, and you feel handicapped because you are not equipped enough with the language to deal with all the technicalities yourself. You’re supposed to be a journalist and teacher, an educated person, and yet in those moments you sometimes feel stripped, exposed, child-like.

Suddenly, interrupting these thoughts, was a dialogue between Çetın and the clerk. Evidently there was something wrong with my papers. Angry Çetın came out of his shell, his voice taking on the harsh elements we at the school knew so well, like when we walked on his freshly mopped floor. I silently rooted for him to conquer this pesky weasel of a clerk. Çetin, battled on, entreating, employing subtly phrased logic, wiping his brow.

In the end, Çetin threw up his hands and stifled a curse. The clerk handed back my papers, with an accompanying note.

Çetin shook his head as we went downstairs and back outside.

Meanwhile, wild scenarios play out in my head as we go to get the metro, scenarios that mostly involve sudden deportation. What would I do, go back to America? I didn’t have the money for that. And what about my girlfriend? What about my work? What about my life here?

Well, don’t panic. Stay calm and let it ride out. Remember the time three years ago, when your visa was expired and you had to leave Turkey for three months, and how you were able to make your way back to Prague, taking an overnight bus from Istanbul, and how you rode out the winter in Prague and in the spring made it back.

Anyway, you still don’t even know what’s going on. We have to go back to the school, Çetın says. His explanation is vague. Something involving the papers, an ‘I’ un-dotted or ‘t’ un-crossed. It was always the way. We would have to go back to the Foreign Police station on Monday. Don’t pack a bag yet.

On ferry boat back to Kadikoy, Çetın dozed again, while I looked out at the grey sky and heavy seas. The sea birds were following us again.

My phone rang. It was my girlfriend Ozge. She was flying out that morning to visit her family in Mersin.

“Is everything alright?” she asked. “Are you finished with the police?”

“Everything’s fine,” I said. “We just have to go back on Monday.”

“Are you sure?” she asked. “You sound different.”
“No, everything’s fine. Call me when you get to Mersin.”

“All right, baby. Be sure to feed the cat.”

She rang off, and I went back to looking out the window. I thought of the Syrian families back at the Foreign Police office, waiting to get their residency permits, so that they did not have to go back to their war-torn homeland. Well, remember: someone always has it tougher than you.

Hadi, James!” said Çetin, motioning as the ferryboat arrived in Kadikoy. “Gel! Come on!”

 ###

James Tressler is a former Times-Standard reporter. His books, including the recently published “Lost Coast D.A.,” are available at Lulu.com and Amazon.com. He lives in Istanbul.


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