James Tressler / Sunday, Feb. 22, 2015 @ 7:50 a.m. / Letter From Istanbul
LETTER FROM ISTANBUL: When Santa Met The Janissary
If a bird shits on you, buy a lottery ticket.
This is what Istanbullus say when it happens, and it happens a lot in this city by two seas.
The bird struck Murat as he was going downstairs to the bakkal to get cigarettes and a newspaper (Yes, as he was going downstairs. The birds here have great aim, trust me).
His wife, Selma, was still in bed. Outside, it was late December, and a mountain of snow had fallen overnight.
Murat, a retired electrician, noticed the shit and went on. Perfect. He was at a certain disadvantage in life, after all. He was old, and at loose ends, so it all fit. He was used to taking shit falling from the sky. He didn’t even bother to question it anymore. Ever since his retirement, he and Selma had spent long hours together hanging out at their flat in Şişli. That’s what retirement was all about, he figured: waiting for shit to fall from the sky; hell, from everywhere.
Selma, for a long time, had seen this mood creeping up on her husband. She even laughed a little when he stormed upstairs, like a beaten puppy, covered in bird shit. She knew him better than he even knew himself.
“Why don’t you go out today, my husband?” her voice, crow-like, echoed from the bedroom. “You’re sick and tired of being here. Why don’t you get out? Why don’t you take up a hobby.”
So just to spite her, he did.
He went back downstairs, walked down to the local market, and purchased a Santa Claus suit in one of the bazaars. He’d seen it there a few days before, on one of his few walks, and now he decided, in a fell, conquering swoop, to embark upon a new career as Baba Noel. That would show her. At least it got him out of the house and away from the falling bird shit.
It should be noted that Turks often think that Christmas is celebrated on New Year’s Eve. They don’t realize that in the West they are two distinct celebrations. Anyway, Murat was celebrating, in his eyes, the New Year, but like many of his countrymen, if asked by a tourist, he would have said, somewhat naively in his very little English, that it was “Christmas.”
Just to backtrack and get the complete picture: Earlier that morning, he had gone downstairs to the bakkal to purchase the cigarettes and newspaper for his wife. Just as he stepped out of the bakkal to go back upstairs, he felt something splatter against his snow cap.
“Amanakwim!” he swore, in one of the most violent of Turkish curses.
When he got upstairs, his wife Selma was up, laughing at him in her affectionate way, and making tea and toasted sandwiches. Murat hurriedly ran his cap under the sink. In the living room, the TV was turned to the news. There was a report on the president and the opening of the new palace in Ankara. They sat in the living room and ate breakfast.
“You’ll have to be sure and buy a lottery ticket, canim,” Selma said, repeating the Istanbullu proverb. She went on: “What time will you be home? … I should love to win the lottery. We could afford to buy a house in Bodrum!”
“We have your father’s house in Gebze, aşkım,” said Murat coldly.
“I know,” Selma said, “but still, I would like to have a house in Bodrum.”
Murat finished his breakfast, put on his snow cap, which by now had dried resting on the heater.
“I’ll be home for lunch,” he said.
“OK, stay warm, my husband,” Selma said. “But be sure and buy that lottery ticket!”
Murat went downstairs, his eye circling the horizons like a weary spy, and seeing no danger, went out into the street. He went to the market and bought the Santa suit.
Meanwhile, across the Bosphorous, on the other side of the city, a young man was also getting dressed. The boy’s name was Levent. He was dressing up as a Janissary, one of the elite soldiers who served the Sultan during the Ottoman Empire.
In the mirror, Levent, studied the flowing, black beard. He stood somewhat self-consciously, in full Janissary dress. Unlike his jolly, older counterpart in Şişli, Levent had no one to make breakfast for him. Ever since his parents’ divorce two years ago, Levent’s father had relocated to Kazakhstan, where he had a mining business. The mother was living with relatives in New Jersey, and had recently, in one of her typically tearful, theatrical phone calls, informed her son that he would have to get a job and support himself.
That really pissed him off. His family had once been quite well off, but the father let the business in Kazakhstan go to hell because of a dishonest partner, and because – in his son’s words – he was, “busy fucking whores in the nightclubs of Almaty, breaking my mother’s heart and letting my fortune go down the toilet.”
Levent was a very bright but undisciplined young man. As a student at prestigious Koç University, he had displayed a quick, versatile mind, and should have sailed through his economics studies. But (perhaps like his father), he had showed more of a fondness for the nightlife in Taksim than attending classes. Now, at age 26, he had passed the date of his father’s ultimatum of either graduating, or feeding himself.
That had all happened about six months before. Since then, Levent had gone through two jobs (one of them even provided a company car, but he had lost the car, the job as well as his license, after being pulled over one night after he’d been out drinking with friends. Then he had found a job in telemarketing that didn’t pay as well, but at least covered his living expenses, but he had grown bored with the job and just stopped showing up for work).
Now, his rent was coming due. He had managed to make some cash writing essays for buddies who were still stuck at the university. But the payments were slow in coming. Their fathers were offering their own ultimatums.
It was embarrassing, for the son of a rich guy (well, he used to be rich, kind of still was, wasn’t he?) to be reduced to such pitiful means. So it’s understandable that in the past few months, his thinking, his worldview, had undergone a fundamental shift. He was angry, and talked to himself more than he used to.
And finding himself in such a position, Levent spent hours a day at the library at Koç University (he still had his old student card), and he read a lot. He always liked to read. He read books on Ottoman history, of the splendor and excesses of the sultans, the glories of Mehmet the Conqueror and Suleyman the Magnificent, the conquest of Constantinople as well as the disappointment in the Crimean Wars. He also spent many hours on YouTube, browsing random videos.
One day he came across a video of a Turkish student dressed up as an Ottoman. This self-professed “Neo-Ottoman” was walking around the streets of fashionable Nişantışı, quite unabashedly urging his “fellow citizens” to recall the glory days of the Empire. He gave himself a wide berth, and the skies were his heavens. Quite openly he berated the nearest women, who were engaged in a bit of harmless afternoon shopping. He told them to read the Koran and to cover themselves, to behave “in a moral way.”
The Neo-Ottoman went on, with the passersby exchanging glances mixed with horror, astonishment and amusement. He claimed that “It is because of people like you, and the general morale decline, that the Ottoman Empire fell!”
“So what do you want me to do?” one woman asked pointedly. “Go home and put on a burka?”
The Neo-Ottoman apparently had no direct answer for that. Instead, he just smiled to himself knowingly and walked on.
Levent, who had an ironic turn of mind, found the video comic.
Personally, he found the whole “Neo-Ottoman speech” ridiculous. Such people were living in the past.
“If a guy like that lived in the Ottoman Empire … he probably thinks he would be the sultan’s son,” Levent scoffed to himself. “Guys like that, they think they are all sons of Mehmet the Conqueror, when in fact they would be lucky if their fathers shined shoes in the street!”
But events of the recent months – his newfound poverty, his parents’ hard-line attitude, their seeming abandonment – had gone to work on his pride, his thoughts. Especially now, with the arrival of the cold weather, the snow, and the busy shopping season. He’d go for a few beers or glasses of raki at one of his old Taksim haunts, and afterward he would walk in a drowsy trance, noticing the cheery Christmas lights, the festive tree in the square, and all the people out enjoying the season and buying gifts.
Levent was educated and traveled enough to understand the differences between the Christian holiday and the New Year. He knew that, from a Western standpoint, they were two different things. But he also was aware of how many Turks confused the issue, and it annoyed him (against his reason, he suspected, in more sober moments), that his countrymen seemed in such a hurry to embrace, even validate, these foreign traditions.
“They’re Western wannabes,” was how his mind crystallized the situation.
It was their ignorance that annoyed him, as well as some secret, tarnished pride. He sneered as he watched the housewives and their children rushing in and out of the shops, standing in line for hours to buy plastic goods advertised by desperate housewives in America and made in China.
“ Wannabes …,” he repeated to himself. “Why, they would kill their own children to get one of those —!”
It was this slow, simmering process that had brought about the latest turn of events, where we see the young Levent, former Koç student and son of the owner of a mining company, standing in front of a mirror, dressed in a Janissary costume, ready for violence.
Murat was not in the best of moods either.
It was cold out, with a swirl of winds from the Black Sea and the Bosphorous coming up the hills and blasting Taksim Square.
The Santa costume was not as warm as one would imagine, so Murat had also packed on wool underwear, but it was itchy. So he was standing there, in Taksim Square in the great city of Istanbul, ringing a bell with one hand and scratching his balls with the other. Not exactly a merry picture.
Also, to be honest, when pressed, Murat wasn’t exactly sure what he was supposed to be doing as Santa Claus, except standing around looking jolly and merry.
He did buy the lottery tickets, in case you were wondering. Despite what you may say about the man, Murat never in his life would have considered not heeding his wife’s warnings, much as it bitched him to do so.
The tickets were purchased from the same bakkal where he had got the cigarettes and newspaper earlier that morning. The winning ticket, it was reported, would fetch 200,000 liras. Hardly enough for a house in Bodrum, mind, but they would certainly fetch something. Perhaps they could take a trip to Rome, something Selma always wanted to do …
“Excuse me!” a young woman’s face flashed in front of Murat, interrupting his thoughts. “Can we take a picture with you?” She was English, or American, a yabanci anyway. She was with some other girls, all of university age.
Murat obligingly got into character, and stood with two of the girls, while a third took the photo on her iPhone.
“Thank you!” the first one said. “Wow! I took a picture with Santa in Turkey!”
“Merry Christmas!” the girls shouted gaily. With a swirl of chatter, they were gone.
“Happy Christmas!” Murat said, ringing the bell.
Some time later, Murat noticed someone approaching.
It was our Levent, dressed as the Janissary. He was shouting, raising a fist into the air, and people turned to watch.
“Why are you here?” Levent shouted. “This is a Muslim country and we do not want these Christian holidays imposed upon us! You must leave this city immediately! Go on, leave!”
“What are you talking about, genc?” Murat asked, in the manner of a senior citizen addressing a careless young man.
“Leave the city immediately!” Levent repeated. “Or face the wrath of the Sultan!”
Levent then charged at Murat, his face full of rage. In a panic, Murat turned and ran. The Janissary chased Santa across Taksim Square. Even if Santa hadn’t been keeping a list, and checking it twice, he must have known by now that this young man was naughty and not nice.
Fortunately, a crowd of people managed to intervene and separate the two costumed adversaries. Some students helped Santa to the metro, and sent him home to his wife in Şişli. Meanwhile, the Janissary, after exchanging taunts and jeers with the crowd, was chased down the hill, where he managed to escape in a nearby park.
Some people managed to get video on their smart phones, and these were shared on various websites and discussed in chat rooms and social media in the following days. Naturally, some took pity on the unfortunate Santa, while others saw some reasoning in the behavior of the Janissary.
At any rate, both of the men, the older and the younger, returned to their homes that evening after the incident.
Levent took off the Janissary outfit, had a shower, and then went on the Internet. He got a call from his mother.
“What did you do today?” she asked. “Have you found another job?”
“Not yet, mother,” Levent said.”
“Why don’t you call your father?” his mother asked. “He might have something for you in Almaty.”
“All right,” he said.
Across town in Şişli, Murat, by now a very tired and grumpy Santa, had also arrived home. He took off the jolly beard and red Santa cap, and sat wearily down on the sofa.
His wife, Selma, brought in a hot cup of tea.
“Did you remember to buy a lottery ticket, my husband?” She asked.
Murat looked at her.
“What do you think, my light?” he asked.
Selma thought he had spited her, the old bastard.
“Oh, you didn’t then, you worn-out goat?” she cried. “You forgot. And what about our house in Bodrum, then! Allah, Allah!”
Murat drank his tea and lit a cigarette. He didn’t feel like telling his wife that he had been threatened and chased around Taksim Square by a young man dressed as a Janissary.
His wife, Selma, shook her head and sighed.
“And just think,” she said. “We could have bought a house in Bodrum!” She went off to the kitchen to warm the supper and make tea.
Oh well, Murat thought. He was retired and didn’t need this. Maybe he would hang up his new career as Santa. At least his balls wouldn’t itch anymore.
James Tressler a writer and teacher whose books, including “Letters from Istanbul, Vols. 1 and 2,” can be found at Lulu.com. He lives in Istanbul.