Photo: Tressler.

Four p.m. on the metro is always packed, as the evening rush hour begins. For true metropols like myself, the Marmaray is the real way to get around the city, not the ferries steaming in the Bosphorus. Hundreds of feet below the city, the train is crammed with strapholders, many on their way from work on the European side to their homes on the Asian side. While the ferries are romantic, and certainly more picturesque, for tired commuters the Marmaray is faster, more efficient.

One of the things I like about the Marmaray is that, as a people watcher, you get such a variety of interesting faces, especially as more passengers board at the central stops near Taksim and Şişhane. You hear a range of accents and languages – Turkish, English, Arabic, Russian and so on – as well as people in all manner of dress, from miniskirts to burkas.

Naturally, aboard the crowded train, along with the general fatigue city dwellers have at that hour, there can be strain and tension, as hoards on the platform and those getting off the arriving and departing trains, jockey for precious space. Everybody’s in a hurry to get home. Occasionally tempers flare.

It was in this atmosphere that such an incident occurred this past week. I’d gone to Sariyer, a neighborhood in the north part of the city up near the Third Bridge, to look at a flat that my wife and I are considering renting (Our recently purchased flat in Kadıkoy may be demolished and rebuilt to earthquake standards, as many doubtless will be as a result of last month’s tragedies). By the time I boarded the Marmaray at Yenikapı and finally homeward bound, I was exhausted.

A trio of stout middle-aged ladies managed to elbow and squeeze their way into the last breathable space just as the doors were trying to close. Their nationality was indeterminate, and would have escaped attention if not for suddenly one of them burst out in this high mocking voice.

“Par-don! Par-don!” mimicked the lady, who was evidently aiming her wit at a young covered woman, dressed all in traditional black, including the headscarf. While the other passengers looked on, rather bemused, the young traditional woman, who appeared to be Turkish, switched to English.

“What did you say to me?” she demanded, in a sharp voice, leveling her gaze at the foreign woman. “Shut your fucking mouth!”

The foreign woman, taken aback and perhaps feeling threatened, said nothing. The covered woman turned away, squeezing into a tight space. The rest of us passengers averted our eyes, or else looked at each other with embarrassed smiles.

The train passed beneath the Bosphorus, the sound of air rushing through the tunnel was all that we heard the rest of the way until presently we arrived at the stop in Kadıkoy, where I got off. The young covered woman got off behind me. She offered a parting shot to the foreign ladies. “Yeah, fuck you all!” she shouted over one shoulder.

Part of me, to be honest, wanted to turn around and say, “Real nice. Aren’t you a religious person? Is Allah listening to you right now?” But she probably would have told me to go fuck myself as well, and I probably wouldn’t have blamed her. If she was Turkish, and I’m pretty sure she was, did she really need a yabancı lecturing her on her choice of words, or train conduct? Plus, it was rush hour, and I myself have had my share of such episodes over the years.

Istanbul has always been a city filled with foreigners. “Geography is destiny,” as people here so often say. It is a crossroads city, a transit city, a city of fortune, and of refuge, not to mention an ideal holiday for those looking for a taste of the exotic. For Turks, or locals, dealing with yabancılar is a part of everyday life, and for the most part the relationship is surprisingly harmonious.

But things are getting a bit more prickly nowadays. Thanks to the war in Syria, and now the war to the north in Ukraine, the city and country are flooded with refugees. The Syrians have been here for years, and many have either long-since integrated or moved on to destinations in Europe or America. The Russians and Ukrainians have traveled to Turkey for years, to the sunny beaches of Antalya and Adana. But the war has brought many more here, many snapping up apartments and other properties in hopes of obtaining a Turkish passport through investment. According to recent figures, about 250,000 Russian nationals are living in Turkey, along with about 100,000 Ukrainians.

The number here in the city is not clear, but just a layman’s glance – or rather, listen – does tell a story. On the bus ride in my neighborhood in recent months, it has become customary to hear conversations in Russian (or Ukrainian, I can’t tell the difference, honestly), which is something you almost never heard before, at least not in our neighborhood. It should be noted that these people I have brushed past on the buses and trains show nothing more or less than the normal courtesies one expects on public transport. Also, if altercations do occur, they are more often than not between fellow Turks rather than with foreigners.

Still, the constant influx of new arrivals, coupled with the fall out from last month’s earthquakes down south, has people on edge, I think. Along with the economy, the double-digit inflation, and the fact that like everyone else we had finally managed to feel like we were living in a post-pandemic world, the earthquakes seemed to reinforce this idea of perma-crisis, that we just can’t seem to ever catch a break in this part of the world.

“I think we should get rid of all the foreign people,” said one of my students last term, in a half-joking way, when we were discussing possible cures to Turkiye’s many woes. Evidently his classmates agreed, for his pronouncement was greeted with approving chuckles.

The student’s comment came back to me when after the metro incident, as I walked up the hill to our apartment. The trip out to Sariyer and its environs, the high green hillsides looking north toward the Black Sea, was a refreshing change of pace, and the long ride back through the city – past the towers of Maslak and Levent, places I seldom go – gave me a chance to view the city from a fresh perspective. It’s good now and again to break from your routine commute.

Again, the long ride through the belly of the city was a reminder of all of the different people, of varying ethnicities and backgrounds, who inhabit this vast city. Yet, as the incident above illustrated, minor as it was in hindsight, tempers can get short from time to time with so many people jammed into such a small space, everyone rushing to meet his or her own individual destiny. I’m reminded of another discussion I had with a Turkish manager at one of the companies I used to teach at years ago. We were talking about the famous Turkish hospitality. “We like to treat our guests well,” is a saying most Turks would heartily agree with.

“Yes,” said the manager. “But sometimes there are just too many guests!” Indeed. As for myself, with a wife and son onboard, I have over the years graduated somewhat from yabancı to enişte, or “brother-in-law.” So at least on my better days, I like to count myself as exempt. But I try to remind myself from time to time that, in public places anyway, I am and always will be a foreigner. And in these trying times, it’s best to know one’s place.


James Tressler, a former Lost Coast resident, is a writer and teacher living in Istanbul.