Violence can be ugly, brutal and life-threatening. Then again, at certain rare times, it can possess an arresting beauty. It can even be funny, too -– maybe not for the participants, but for those watching from a (safe) distance.
For example, years ago in Prague we used to haunt this local bar in the city’s outskirts. Night after night, the barman, a guy named Milan, used to stand behind the bar getting steadily soaked over shots of rum or slivovice. He was generally a mean sonofabitch, owing to his drinking. He hated the customers and they more or less hated him back, if they ever thought about him at all.
One evening, while some of us were sitting having beers after a day of teaching, Milan suddenly exploded into one of his rages, shouting at a nearby customer. He launched himself (somehow, in his condition) over the bar, lunged at the customer and tackled him. The table was upset, beer went flying, while these two rolled around on the floor of the bar.
Those of us watching were stunned, amused. It looked like a scene from “Roadhouse.” All we needed was a blind guitarist and a backing blues band to provide musical accompanyment, and perhaps a brassy, big-haired blonde to add the jealousy element.
Who won? Neither of them. They rolled around a bit, punching, scratching and biting, until somebody separated them.
The next night we returned to the bar, and Milan was at his usual post. With a slow-burning determination, and great dexterity, he was working his way through another bottle. The guy he’d fought the night before was at his usual table, similarly occupied. Leaning, even swaying, against the bar, he filled his glass. He’d take a strong sip, one hand holding fast onto the side of the bar, his eyes fixed on some remote point in the distance.
Except for the occasional random curse thrown out by Milan (tossed at nobody in particular – the air perhaps – or at some ghost of his past), the bar was cordial and pleasant, almost as if the whole episode from the night before had never happened.
In recent days, our fair city was graced by another such spectacle.
As you may have seen on the social media, an Irish tourist was involved in a fight with a dozen or so shopkeepers in Istanbul. A video, which was captured by security cameras, has been something of an Internet sensation.
If you haven’t seen the video, you should watch it first to see where I am coming from. If you haven’t got time, I’ll describe what transpired, and the circumstances, briefly. The Irish tourist was staying at a hotel in the neighborhood of Aksaray, which is located not too far from the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. He stopped by a local market to get some bottled water. Reaching into the fridge, he accidentally caused a number of the water bottles to fall out of the fridge and onto the pavement.
The shopkeeper shouted at him and even hit him with a stick of some kind, as can be seen by the security camera.
Then, as Ron Burgundy would say, things escalated quickly. Yep, they jumped up a notch:
As we see in the video, suddenly the Irish tourist is pushed out of the shop onto the street, and surrounded by at least a dozen locals, presumably other shopkeepers and local toughs. The locals close in, menacing, intimidating. One of them gets really close to strike. But unbeknownst to these locals, the Irish guy happens to be a professional boxer. Just as the nearest one throws a punch, our Irish lad steps back, avoiding the punch, then counters with a beautifully timed, crushing right hand that lands flush on the attacker’s jaw. You see the punch land, and the local, with a kind of hurt surprise, falls straight to the pavement.
The other attackers, seeing this punch, are forced back, with a measure of respect. But they quickly close in again. Our Irish lad, pumped up now, is on his toes, shoulders and fists raised. He wants more. He goes after the biggest of the lot, a black-bearded fellow who attempts a karate kick. The Irish boxer throws a kick in return, and they disappear off screen for a second. (While all this is going on, we see the first attacker, the one who got hit with the punch, slowly get up. He can hardly stand. He slowly walks off, stumbling here and there. He goes over to a wall and sits down, lost in something, as if pondering the existence of life on other planets, or his own existence on this planet.).
Our focus quickly shifts back to the Irish lad. He’s still at it. He wants more again. The mob seems to have grown. They want more too. They want a piece of this yabancı, and they want it badly. A local guy, wearing a black shirt, can also be seen in the background. Some of the other men have sticks, and the black-shirted guy is trying to hold them off, but someone else grabs him and forcibly moves him away, allowing the guys with the sticks (or bats? I’m not sure) to do their work. Others have plastic chairs, and they also go to work.
The Irish guy is vastly outnumbered, and the sticks and chairs shower down, though he seems to block most of the blows.
Then, with some urging (especially from the guy in the black T-shirt), the Irish tourist returns to his nearby hotel, only to re-emerge moments later, re-energenized. With a jog in his step, a shift of muscle in his powerful shoulders, he goes after his assailants again, again, and again.
In the following days, the video went viral. Ironically, the Irish tourist has become something of a folk hero here in Turkey. Turks admire courage and toughness, and many saluted the Irish man for standing up and fighting against seemingly impossible odds.
“We in Turkey are always raised to believe that one Turk can beat the whole world,” read one Tweet. “But now we see that it took only one Irishman to beat ten of us Turks!”
“Imagine if he’d brought a few more of his mates along,” another Tweeted.
You may find it curious that the Turks took the Irishman’s side. But context is everything. Over the past couple years, there have been other such incidents. They were neither beautiful nor amusing.
The country’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in a speech, called upon the nation’s shopkeepers to be “soldiers,” to help keep order (this was around the time of the Gezi Park protests). In one incident, a journalist was killed by shopkeepers simply because he and his friends were having a snowball fight and accidentally hit a shopkeeper’s window. Also during the Gezi Park protests, shopkeepers armed with machetes chased and threatened anti-government protesters in the streets.
Just a few weeks ago, during Ramadan, some Korean tourists were attacked by a similar mob because the mob mistook them for Chinese (the assailants were said to be angered by reports of the Chinese government forbidding fasting for Muslim minorities during Ramazan).
Such acts of vigilantism, or straight-up thuggery, whatever you want to call them, have created resentment among many Turks. Do shopkeepers who get their back up – for whatever reason – have the right to just take the law into their own hands? Who here favours 10-to-1 odds? Who here favours beating in the streets?
Anyway, that’s why the Irish guy standing up to the shopkeepers has been such a source of both amusement and admiration. The shopkeepers had it coming. All the more because, as the video shows, the Irish guy was heavily outnumbered. Even with such odds, the locals still resorted to using sticks and chairs, a sharp contrast to the lonesome bravery of the Irishman.
“I’d like to buy that guy a beer,” Tweeted another admiring Turk.
So would I.
Let’s face it: most of us don’t like fights. People get hurt in fights. People get killed in fights. We avoid them. So to see this one guy stand up for himself, against such odds – faraway from home … Yes, there is a certain beauty in that, and something comic in seeing the bullying shopkeepers get what was coming.
“Couldn’t they find some little Korean guy to pick on?” another Tweet enquired.
[Ed. note: In the days after this was written, the Irish guy was identified as a Kuwaiti-born man named Mohammed Fadel Dobbousi, who is living in Ireland. He has filed a lawsuit against the shopkeepers (he suffered a broken arm and fractured skull).]
James Tressler is a writer whose books include “Conversations in Prague,” Lost Coast D.A.,” and “The Trumpet Fisherman and Other Istanbul Sketches.” He lives in Istanbul.