James Tressler / Sunday, June 24 @ 7:02 a.m. / Letter From Istanbul
LETTER FROM ISTANBUL: Dinner With Vlad the Impaler (and Other Orientalist Fantasies)
“How’s everything going?” Her husband Eric’s voice sounded cheery. He was at work, so was excused from the move.
“We’re lucky,” the husband corrected. “Are you excited?”
“I don’t know. I guess so.” Meryem was trying to be cautious, always mindful of an unseen snag, a disappointment hovering over the horizon.
“So where are you now?”
“Still at the old place. The movers were late. We should be done in, like, another hour or so.”
“All done, baby!” Her husband’s voice all but sang into the receiver.
“Not done! We still have to unpack. You can help when you finish work.”
Meryem rang off. She was 30, just turned. She and Eric, an American teacher, had met five years before, married for three. She shared her mother’s fair skin and reserved, practical natüre, combined with the historical curiosity and lazy playfulness of her father, a retired museum curator. She studied literature at Boğazcı University, and was working on a master’s thesis on Evliya Çelebi, the celebrated 17th Century Ottoman travel writer. When the new move was out of the way, she hoped to find the energy and focus to finally get it done.
“Ne anne!” She answered her mother’s call from the kitchen impatiently.
Her mother, with her Anatolian resourcefulness, had managed to fit all the plates into a single box, where they were stuffed and packed like Eyptian mummies.
“Can you tell the boys to take this box down carefully?” her mother asked.
“Evet, anne.” Her parents had flown up from her hometown on the south coast, interrupting their quiet retirement, to assist with all the details of the move. Actually, she reflected, they’d been a godsend.
Of course there was the money side. The bulk of the money for the new apartment (they were buying it outright, at an astoundingly reasonable 300,000 TL, a price nearly unheard of for any piece of property near the Bosphorus) had come from her inheritance from her grandmother. Eric’s parents in America had managed to send over some money as well.
Meryem’s parents also paid for the new refrigerator, washing machine and stove that had already been delivered and installed at the new flat. They also paid the emlak’s fee as well, and the movers.
Overall, the couple could declare themselves extremely fortunate, as they found themselves often touching wood. The flat was paid for, which meant that in sickness and in health, or “if one of us loses our jobs one day,” as Meryem warned, they would always have a roof over their heads.
That was no small thing, especially nowadays. News reports showed inflation had gone up 12 percent over the past few months. She’d noticed at the süpermarket, where even things like ayran had doubled in price. The president could be heard on the radio every day, blasting foreign powers for interest rates, for the lira tumbling against the dollar to record lows. The ongoing war in Syria, disputes with the great powers on how to best end the conflict.
These were uncertain times, certainly in this part of the world. Time to cash in on their tiny piece of paradise while it was there to be had.
“Now you will have your own garden, canım,” the husband said. “You won’t have to look enviously at all the other people’s gardens.”
It was true. Their long courtship, and the early days after their marriage, had involved poetic walks in the neighborhoods in the evenings of the old neighborhoods on the city’s Asian side. Meryem in particular would gaze longingly at the houses, with their luxurious gardens, and say wistfully, “It’s not fair! Why can’t we live like that! Is it too much to ask”
Well, now they could.
“It’s like a mausoleum in here!” Eric complained.
The bedroom, located in the back of the small apartment, sat away from the sunlight. It was really the only drawback.
“It is cold,” Meryem admitted. “Shall I get the quilt?”
They got out of the bed, lifted the mattress, allowing Meryem to get the heavy wool blanket. Outside, it was the end of May. The city was still fighting off rains and a slight chill from a long winter.
The unpacking was done in two days, as well as a few minor fixes. The Internet was up and running, the entire place cleaned top to bottom. There was that satisfying newness to everything. Even their old furniture helped, giving the place a warm, lived-in look. Already they felt very comfortable. On the last night, before her parents flew back, they cooked fresh levrek, and toasted anne andbaba with bottles of rose, on the newly constructed terrace that looked out on the garden.
There were still some things – the poor cat had been a little traumatized by the move. For two days she hid under the sofa, scarcely even touching her food, peering out occasionally with frightened eyes. But now she appeared to be getting accustomed. Unable to overcome her curiosity, the cat had begun a scrupulous survey of her new surroundings. Not an inch of the apartment did not come in for a sniff, a tentative paw, studied attention from those wide feline eyes.
At present, Ginger had found the top of the wardrobe – her “balcony” – and had fallen into a restful sleep.
“Ginger doesn’t seem to be cold,” the husband Eric observed, after they had covered up with the quilt.
Meryem looked at the cat with loving eyes. She had been a little worried.
“Anyway, we can maybe move the bed out there near the terrace.” Meryem said. They had talked about this before.
They cuddled, feeling very warm now, and comfortable. The new apartment was very quiet – unlike the old one, which had faced a busy street. The door was kept ajar, leading out to the living room, where the sleeping terrace let in a sliver of clandestine moonlight, the silent living room breathing in the silences of the garden. In the night, sometimes the sleeping couple would turn over, one or the other, in their sleep, reaching and finding the other’s hand to hold in the new darkness.
The next door neighbors came by the next morning. Eric had already gone to work. Meryem heard the knock at the door as she was getting dressed.
Thinking it was an electrician, who was supposed to come by and install a ceiling lamp she had bought at IKEA, Meryem answered the door. In the hallway stood a girl about her age, slender, with pale, luminescent skin and bright, flashing eyes. She wasn’t Turkish, Meryem thought.
“Actually I am from Romania,” the girl said, after halting introductions. Her name was Irina. Meryem drew her breath. Both she and Eric jealously guarded their private life, and resented the intrusion of neighbors.
“I would invite you in,” Meryem said, using English. “But as you can see, we are still just getting settled. The place is still a mess!”
“I wanted to invite you and your husband for dinner,” the girl Irina said. “It doesn’t have to be this evening, of course.” The manner of the invitation was given such that Meryem understood that it would not be easy to duck. It might be best, she surmised, to just accept and get it over with.
“Super!” Irina clapped her hands together. “Just come over anytime after seven. We’re having some of our traditional dishes from Bucharest. Not the pork dishes, of course. Probably a beef salad, with some nice red wine. You and your husband eat meat? You are not vegetarians?
“Beef is fine. Shall we bring anything?”
“Just bring yourselves. Please, I insist!”
Naturally the electrician never showed up. Meryem texted Eric about the dinner. It’s just for dinner, she insisted. We can leave as soon as possible.
Irina was pleased to see them. She introduced them to her brother, Victor. He was a strong-looking fellow, with deep-set eyes and rather sullen in presence. He poured shots of “tuica,” a traditional Romanian spirit made from plums. “We make it here ourselves,” İrina explained. The brother did not speak English, and only spoke rudimentary Turkish. “Can you speak Russian?” he asked, out of defensive courtesy. Neither Meryem nor her husband did.
The interior of the flat was similar to theirs in lay out. However, it was very dark, with heavy velvet curtains and even colder than their own. A crystal chandelier hung in the living room, and there were candles lit, giving off a faint musky odor. On the walls were portraits, mostly in black and white, of people Meryem guessed were relatives, ancestors.
Dinner was served on a heavy oak table, and more candles were brought. The two men generally opened their mouths only to put food or wine into them, leaving most of the conversation to the two women.
“So you came here from Bucharest?” Meryem asked. “Why did you come to Turkey?”
“Victor and I were just babies then,” Irina said. “It was our parents’ choice. It was during the time just after the fall of Ceausescu. Maybe you know something about our history. We Romanians seem to have a thing for strong, brutal leaders. Anyway, it was a very difficult, violent period. My father had a Turkish friend in the import-export business, so we came here, and my father went to work importing for his friend Romanian beef to Istanbul.”
“Oh, that’s right,” Eric said, warming up with the wine. “I read somewhere that Turkey imports a lot of its beef.”
“This beef you are eating now probably came from a Romanian farm,” Irina replied.
“Is it always so cold here?” Meryem asked. “I mean, our flat too seems –“
“It’s because we are on the basement level,” Irina explained. “We only get the sunlight in the morning. So are you and your husband planning to have a child?”
“We don’t know.” It was a sensitive topic. Meryem avoided her husband’s eyes. In Turkey especially, it was the inevitable question.
“How old are you? Well, what are you waiting for?” Irina exclaimed. “You are not getting any younger! Oh, excuse me. In Romania, we usually have children at a young age. Plus, you are so pretty. And your husband so handsome! It would be a beautiful child, I am sure.”
İrina was not married. Meryem gathered that the two siblings didn’t go out much, except to the supermarket, or other such errands.
“I didn’t know there were Romanian people in Istanbul,” her husband, Eric said, thankfully changing the subject. “Do you guys have friends or other family living here?”
He waited while Irina interpreted the question to her brother, who listened morosely, his heavy dark features frowning. The two spoke for a minute or two in their native language.
“Excuse us for speaking Romanian,” Irina said, presently. She poured more wine, except for Meryem, who usually only drank one glass. “No, we don’t know any other Romanians. You are right, there are not so many here. My brother was just saying that the history of Romania and Turkey is quite interesting. Are you familiar with Vlad III? I think in Turkish he is called Vlad Tepe.”
“Of course,” Meryem said. “Count Dracula.”
“Yes, he is also known as that.”
“You mean, Vlad the Impaler?” Eric showed interest for the first time that evening. The brother, Victor, following the conversation, looked at Eric and Meryem with cold, smiling eyes. “Dracuela!” he said, in the Romanian way, laughing with a short bark. To Eric, it seemed that for just a flicker, the delicious thought of impaling Eric had crossed his host’s mind. He probably has some impaling device all ready to go in the back room somewhere.
“Speaking of impaling,” Eric cut in. “How exactly did Vlad impale people?”
“Eric!” His wife looked at him admonishingly.
More discussion in Romanian followed, a sort of mini-conference.
“My brother says that they used a stake. They would tie a person’s feet to horses to spread the legs, then the stake would be pushed up into the ass, or for women, in the vagina.”
Eric’s attention was drawn by Victor, again his eyes keen and bright. Using his fist, he illustrated the violence of the act, then laughed and raised his glass to Eric, clinking.
“To impalements!” Eric improvised. “Here’s to taking it straight up the ass!”
The sister translated, and the toast drew immeasurable approval from Victor.
“Up the ass!” he agreed, parroting Eric. “To Vlad the Great!”
“Anyway, during Ottoman times,” Meryem interrupted, remembering her university studies. “Romania consisted of three kingdoms, and they were all more or less in Ottoman hands. Vlad the Third, came from Wallachia. The sons of Romanian rulers, like Vlad, were sent to Istanbul as a show of loyalty to the sultan. Like – what is the word in English – wassal?”
She looked at her husband.
“You mean, ‘vassal,’” Eric corrected.
“Vassals, yes,” Irina said. “But of course, they were always fighting for independence. Vlad the Third was the fiercest of our Romanian rulers … “
“Is it really true that he impaled people?” Eric asked.
“Oh yes,” Irina said. She relayed Eric’s question to her brother, who nodded and raised his glass with a kind of wicked glee. “He liked to use this method because it usually took the person many hours, even days, to die. It was a very horrible, but effective way of terrifying his enemies.”
“Is it true he was Count Dracula then?” Meryem asked.
“I don’t know if it is true. Some historians say yes, others say no. Depends on who you ask. Anyway, so that is the history between the Romanian and Turkish peoples.”
“Well, that is something,” Eric said.
“Yes, it is,” Irina said. “More wine?”
“Well, what did you think, baby?” Meryem asked, later as she and Eric prepared for bed. “Was it a torture for you?”
“I was starting to feel like we were in a scene from ‘Rosemary’s Baby,’” Eric laughed, drunk and sleepy. “I mean, all that talk about Dracula, Vlad the Impaler. For Christ’s sake!”
“Keep your voice down.” Meryem beckoned toward the walls.
Returning from work the following evening Eric noticed two missed calls, and a What’sApp message from Meryem. She was at the library. Then she was meeting her friend Banu for coffee. He’d have to feed himself. OK, he replied. No McDonalds, she replied back, adding a smiley emoticon. There were leftovers in the fridge.
Stopping at the Migros, Eric picked up some beer and a pack of cigarettes.
“Hello, Eric!” Hearing his name startled him. He didn’t know anybody in Üsküdar. Turning around, he saw that it was the Romanian girl from the other night.
“Irina!” she smiled, anticipating he wouldn’t remember. “I know, Romanian names are difficult. How are you?”
He was tired, that’s how he was. He was always tired on the way home. But something about the girl’s presence energized him. In the sunlight, she looked healthier, more robust than she had at the apartment. Sensing his interest, Irina smiled again, brighter.
“So you have been to the market?” she asked. “Me too. I was just getting some fish for tonight. How is your wife?”
“She’s good. At the library, working on her thesis.”
“Good for her,” Irina said. “So are you happy here?”
“Yes, we think so. We hope!” He thanked her again for the dinner.
“Of course! Sometime maybe you and your wife can return the hospitality.”
Arriving at the top of the hill, they walked past the rows of old houses, behind which you could see the ships floating in the Bosphorus, until finally they came to their complex. “Tell Meryem I said hello,” Irina said, smiling and waving as the doors opened and she disappeared into her flat.
After feeding the cat and popping open a can of Efes, Eric went and sat on the terrace. Lighting a cigarette, he sat back in his chair. The beer tasted ice cold, perfect. Presently, there was a knock at the door. He opened it, where Irina stood holding a plate of food.
“I thought you might be hungry,” Irina said. “I know your wife doesn’t eat pork, but you’re American, so I thought it would be OK. It’s samarle, stuffed cabbage rolls. Our national dish.”
Actually it smelled good, and he was hungry. But Eric wasn’t thinking about the food. Somehow, he wasn’t surprised to see the girl. That he had expected – wanted – to see her came over him. “May I come in? I will just put it – “ Irina came in and set the plate on the table. “Wow, it is a beautiful place!” she gushed, looking out at the terrace. “You closed the terrace. Very nice.”
Not exactly sure what he was doing, Eric offered Irina one of the beers. “Oh, no thanks,” she said. “I know how a man is about his beer. Victor is the same –“
Eric tasted the cabbage rolls, which looked a lot like Turkish sarma, except with pork instead of beef. It was good – he missed pork sometimes.
“Yes, we have a joke in Romania,” Irina said. “We say that pork is our favorite vegetable! Well, enjoy!”
After Irina left, Eric ate all of the rolls, and drank the beer. He felt sleepy. Maybe it was the climb up the hill, or the fact that he was always tired after work. That and the food and beer combined.
He fell asleep. It was a strange sleep, almost feverish. He did not know how long he slept. In the dream, he was transported somewhere. It was a cold place, a cold room, and he was aware of a familiar musky scent that he had smelled before. The room or place was dark and tomb-silent. He became aware of someone close, and as the dreamscape shifted he heard the sound of heavy footsteps, and a wicked laugh. Eric intuited the brandishing of a sharp instrument. He screamed, as his dreamworld become only a whirlwind of blinding pain …
Eric had already gone to work when Meryem got up the next morning. He seemed to be in a strange mood, preoccupied, but when she sleepily asked what was wrong, he’d just said it was something he ate the night before. “The leftovers must have gone off,” she surmised.
With the place to herself, Meryem was enjoying the new terrace, hoping its fresh air would revive her interest in the thesis. Armed with a fresh cup of coffee and a pack of Polo cigarettes, she spent the next hour or so translating a recently published article on Evliya Çelebi. The trouble, she found, was not a lack of information, but rather finding a new slant. Her thesis counselor, Dana, damn it. She had been the one to recommend this topic.
Lighting a cigarette, Meryem sighed in frustration. Her eyes followed the trail of smoke out the sliding glass doors. A man was standing on the adjoining balcony, looking at her curiously. He was balding, heavy-set, in his early forties. Startled, Meryem jumped. But then she recovered.
“Günaydın,” she said, trying to sound neighborly.
“Have you just moved in?” the man inquired, in accented Turkish. His voice carried easily from the balcony.
“Yes, we are. My husband’s at work.”
“Hoş geldiniz,” the man said.
“Teşekkür ederim,” she responded politely.
The man’s name was Ahmet. A short conversation revealed that he was originally from Dubai, by way of Kazakhstan. “My mother is Kazak and my father Arab,” he explained, switching to English.
“How long have you been in Istanbul?” Meryem asked.
“Oh, I don’t live here. This apartment belongs to a friend. He is away on business in Ukraine. I am just here on holiday.”
“So do you live in Dubai?”
“Most of the time. I split time between there and Astana.
Meryem felt his eyes sizing her up, but he seemed harmless enough. Having lived in the city for so long, she had developed the Istanbullu’s being accustomed to such curiosity. This man, however, seemed more than just curious. He had pointed questions, about how they had found the apartment, how much they had paid for it, etc. In fact, it wouldn’t have surprised Meryem had the man asked to have a personal tour of the rooms.
It was creepy, to be honest.
“Well, you are very lucky,” Ahmet continued, nodding, his gaze travelling past her into the newly furnished living room, appraisingly it seemed.
“Thank you. I will feel even luckier when I can finally finish my thesis,” she laughed, and by glancing at the laptop hoped to indicate that she wished to get back to work.
“Yes, sorry to disturb you,” said the stranger, offering a sort of wave. Bloody hell, these neighbors. First, there was Count Dracula and his sister. Now there was Mr. Astana-By-Way of Dubai, or whereever in God’s name he really came from. You never knew in Istanbul these days. Was probably Arab, she concluded. There were more and more of them in the city, buying up properties that had sat empty with rising inflation the past couple years. But then again, his accent was difficult to pin down. He could very well be Kazak, or Ukrainian, or Uzbek, even Uygur – from somewhere in and around the Caspian. Why had he seemed so curious about their apartment? Was he just nosy? Was it a cultural thing where he came from?
A little while later, there was a knock at the door. Feeling something very like fear, certainly dread, her instinct told her not to answer. Sitting motionless, Meryem tried not to even breathe, to make any kind of sound.
The door knocked again.
The man called her name. Of course, he knew she was home.
“Sorry!” she called, trying to make her voice light. “I have just got out of the shower! Can you come back later?”
“Oh, sorry, sorry,” the muffled voice called. “I have something I would like to talk with you about.”
“My husband will be home soon!” she yelled. “Maybe it would be better if you came when he is home.”
She was feeling panicked, no doubt. Something about the man seemed off – she just didn’t trust him. Maybe she was being paranoid, but Meryem was not normally prone to such things. Her sixth sense told her the man wanted something – but what? Not her. The apartment? That was absurd!
To calm herself, she called Eric. He was just finishing the morning classes. “Just calling to see if you are feeling better, baby. Are you – feeling better?”
“Yeah, guess so,” Eric said. “I don’t know. I had a weird dream last night.”
“I don’t know exactly. I think I had a dream about Vladamir the Impaler!”
“I mean, I think I got impaled in my dream, or something!”
“Baby, are you psycho?” Meryem cried impatiently. All she needed now was a paranoid husband. “Are you are letting your Orientalist fantasies carry you away again?”
Orientalism. Yes, they had discussed Edward Said’s well-regarded book, the dangerously naive misperceptions and stereotypes historically held by Westerners. Eric repented.
“Maybe,” he said. “Still, it was one hell of a dream!”
“Anyway, let’s not talk about the Romanians or Vlad the Impaler anymore. Pinky swear?”
“I didn’t tell you about the other neighbor,” Meryem said. “He freaked me out too. This morning.”
“This guy – on the other side of the building. He says he’s staying at the neighbor’s house for a few days, that the neighbor is a friend away on business or something. He says he’s from Dubai, and Kazakhstan, but he just gives me this weird feeling. And the way he kept looking inside our balcony, like he wants to – I don’t know – live here or something! And just a moment ago, he started knocking on the door, saying he has to talk to me about something.”
“Now you’re the one with the Orientalist paranoia. Anyway, you didn’t let him, did you?”
“No, of course not! I told him you would be home soon.”
“I will be, baby. I’m leaving the school now. I’ll tell them we have some things to do with the apartment. I should be there in about an hour. Don’t answer the door for anyone! I’m coming!”
“OK, bye, baby!”
She rang off. Glancing tentatively from behind a curtain, she checked to see if anyone was around. The neighbor’s balcony was silent. The doors were all locked. It seemed silly, but just as a precaution, she went to the kitchen and took one of the big kitchen knives from the drawer. Just in case this Ahmet – or anybody else – had any ideas about trying to get in, she would show them that there was some truth to the Orientalist legend that Turks are good with knives.
After a while, she settled down. She played with the cat, which made her feel better. She thought about Eric, and that strange dream he talked about on the phone. Oh well, she decided. It was probably just that pork he ate, or the beer. She would have to remind him that he wasn’t supposed to be having beer on school nights.
The 20-minute tram ride from the campus to the metro station, always long, now seemed interminable. Eric’s mind raced, and he glanced around nervously, impatiently at the passing cityscape. Next to him on the tram, an Arab man, in black traditional religious clothing, was clutching a Qu’ran and murmuring to himself. Eric wondered which sect the man belonged too. He felt very uneasy. He found himself glancing at the man’s clothing, wondering if a bomb could be concealed there. It didn’t look like the man was packing explosives.
Jesus, Eric thought, now you’re seeing terrorists on the tram! He chastised himself. Maybe Meryem was right. He was behaving like a paranoid Westerner. Next thing, he would imagine opium dens in the back rooms of every McDonald’s. Harems at the Hilton. Turkish baths on the bus!
Get ahold of yourself, he thought, looking away from the religious man and forcing himself to think about something else.
Still, the idea of anyone harming his wife — of course, Meryem was probably just being paranoid. Jumpiness – probably normal, considering they had just moved in. New surroundings and all that.
He got the metro, then the Marmaray, and arrived back in the neighborhood. Racing up the steps, he had to stop three times, breathing hard, the damn humidity making him light-headed. At home, he announced himself before opening the door.
His wife Meryem fell into his arms. Actually, they sort of fell into each other’s arms, since Eric was about ready to drop dead.
“What kind of hero are you anyway?” she chided, tilting her head and squinting. “What would happen if that man had forced his way in. What would you have done, my darling?”
Seeing that she had the knife, Eric said: “It looks like you could have taken care of him.”
“Yes, but how can you know that? Or were you too busy getting impaled by Vlad the Impaler?”
“Let’s not talk about these things.” Eric sat down on the sofa.
“Why don’t you lay down for awhile before dinner?” Meryem asked.
“Good idea. Why don’t we both lie down.”
They went to the bedroom. Windowless, even in midday the room was dark and cool. Their Turkish prison, as they liked to joke.
“Baby, are we crazy or what?” Meryem asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Are we paranoid of our neighbors?”
“Are we Orientalists?”
“Let’s not worry about anything for awhile.”
They fell asleep. The cat padded in, finding a spot at the foot of the bed and joined in their late afternoon nap.
Meryem’s phone rang. Eric got up and answered it. It was her sister. He handed the phone to his wife, who rubbed her eyes.
Five minutes later, she rang off.
“How is sister?” Eric asked.
“You won’t believe it, baby,” Meryem replied. “She wants to come and stay with us for a few days.”
They looked at each other. While fond of her sister (and his brother-in-law and nephew), Eric knew what lay behind her look. “A few days” meant at least a week.
“What do you think?” Meryem asked.
“Well, we survived Vlad the Impaler, and crazy Kazak-Arab apartment thieves. I think we can survive visiting relatives.”
“We’ll see. After that promise me we can take a vacation. Please? Promise?”
A vacation, yes. That was it. A break from the city, with all its stresses. A break from all the changes, the transitions. A break from new neighbors, and relatives for that matter. A break from Orientalist fantasies. They knew of a konak on a private beach on the windy cape on the south coast. They would go there, far away, where no one, in this world or the next, could ever find them.
“I promise,” her husband said.
James Tressler, a former Lost Coast resident, is a writer, teacher and bewildered dervish. He and his wife Özge live in Istanbul.