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Apple Tea with Musti

Istanbul, Turkey, May 1992

My hotel room has two windows. From one I can just see the Blue Mosque. From the other I look down on the poverty of Istanbul. A shanty town, or the gecekondus,  of wood and brick and stone and metal with a tram running through the centre of it all. From my view above the houses I can see people on balconies that look as if they are falling down. I can see into yards and windows and doors. I can see clothes hanging on lines and over railings. I can see children playing. The hotel is, obviously, for tourists and one can only wonder what they see through our windows.

At breakfast in the hotel on my first morning there were two British couples dressed in summer colours. One man had a pullover shirt with the words "Globetrotter" written in big letters across his chest. He obviously had no aptitude for embarrassment. Actually none of them did or they would never have let him step into the streets of Istanbul looking like such an ass.

I saw these same two couples later in the day between the Blue Mosque and the St. Sophia Mosque. There was a woman with her young son selling vests and slippers and the two couples were haggling over the price, which is what you do when you are on holiday. The item they bought cost them less than a pound sterling. I figure each of them spent around £500 to get from London to Istanbul in the first place. I learned later that the woman worked for a man who gave her stock and the place between the two mosques. For each item she sold she kept 10% of the sale. It was at that moment, with the memory of two British couples haggling with a poor woman for holiday fun, that I decided when buying something from a person on the street I would never barter. Instead I would simply give them what they asked for. Since then I've had a lot of people selling in the streets look at me like I'm some kind of fool. A lot of my colleagues criticise me for my lack of cultural awareness. People expect to barter. Well, there are places where that is absolutely true, like in the Grand Bazaar. But haggling with poor women selling crafts and trinkets in the streets, giving 90% back to some man who is no doubt not so poor, well, that's just crap. I'll keep being a fool.

I found a small café at one of the entrances to the Grand Bazaar (the Kapali Carsi was first built in 1461 as a covered market and now consists of four thousand shops, cafés and restaurants  in a huge covered rabbit warren of a place). Directly in front me is the entrance to the Bazaar. To my right is the "Exchange," a crossroads where mostly young men on large cordless telephones buy and sell stocks. Just behind me and around the corner  is the local mosque where the call to prayer is loud and fascinating. Five times a day the mosques of Istanbul speak to each other, back and forth, calling the men to prayer. It is both beautiful and eerie to western sensibilities. Sitting at an outside table, my back against the stone wall of the café, I hear the call to prayer and watch shops close and men walk around the corner.

The Bazaar area is fascinating. Old narrow streets and alleyways creating a web of activity and life. The buildings are of ancient worn stone, some jutting out over the street. Many are homes with people sitting in their windows looking down on the people leaving and entering the Grand Bazaar, walking along the street, selling stocks on big phones and sitting in cafés. There are plants growing out of mortar and hanging down from the roof tops. People are sitting at small tables with typewriters ready to write you a letter or fill in your form, for a price of course. Men and boys carrying shoe shining paraphernalia. Women selling crafts. Children, everywhere selling postcards.

I return to this café each day. I am, I think, an odd sight for three reasons. First, I return to the same café and table day after day. Second, I have no camera. And third, I write in a journal. I'm often asked what I've done with my camera and more often what I am writing in the book. And inevitably, eventually, someone will come up and start talking. Here, in this place just outside this entrance to the Grand Bazaar, it was Musti. At our first meeting this is what he told me about himself. He had lived in Germany for 20 years. When six months old he fell into a fire pit and severly damaged his right leg. He now walks with a limp. He is a Muslim, married with one daughter. That is all. He was not interested in talking more about himself. He wanted to know why I sat there each day writing in a small book. He also wanted to know where I had left my camera.

Musti works for an up-market shop called Eren  - the sellers of carpet, teppich, tapis and kilim - near the corner of Caģaloģlu and Nuruosmaniye Streets. His job is to greet people on the street, walk along with them, begin a friendly conversation and eventually lead them to the shop. If they buy a carpet, Musti gets a commission. If they do not, he gets nothing. He does not make a lot of money.

He mostly targets tourists, of course. I did explain to him that western tourist are suspicious and perhaps even a little frightened by this sales technique. As I watched this social drama unfold over my time in Istanbul, it became easy to identify tourist responses to the approach. Some were clearly scared and thus responded angry. Others, a few brave souls, actually engaged in conversation and even walked off with Musti to the shop. While others just tried to ignore him, in a clear act of self-defence, continuing walking along without acknowledging him. They had that same damn silly smile on their face, a smile that says two things at once: I'm making a fool of myself and I'm having a brave adventure. Bless them and why not. We're all walking along looking either stupid or tough.

Musti told me that tourists sometimes complain to the police "about him doing his job," which inevitably gets him into trouble for. This angers him. As he said: "This is Turkey! It's the way we do it here!" Ah, Musti, but it's not the way we do it at home and we've got the money. 

For the rest of my stay in Istanbul he sat with me and drank coffee. On the fourth day, however, he said that apple tea was better and he was going to take me to another café inside the Grand Bazaar that was not frequented by tourists, where we could get good apple tea and talk more freely. I went with him. He led me through the old bazaar on a route I was not confident I could retrace. We walked through archways and narrow alleyways until we came to a café as old as Istanbul itself. There were no tourists or white faces to be seen. Men, old and young, sat drinking apple tea, talking and smoking their hookahs. The walls were yellow from the smoke, as were the pictures painted on the walls. The walls themselves curved upward to a rounded ceiling. A couple of the men looked at me with, what? Suspicion? Curiosity? Not sure and it didn't bother me because I was with Musti. The rest just ignored me.

So there we sat and talked. One from Turkey and one from the United States. One with dark skin and one with light skin. One liking tea and one liking coffee (though I did drink apple tea that day). One a Muslim and one a Christian. We were both married, but he could not understand why I had no children. Nothing new there I told him; in my culture people spend more time deciding which refrigerator to buy then having children. He just laughed.

Musti dreamt of a better life. He dreamt of having a nice car and a comfortable home. He wanted his little girl to be safe, healthy and educated. He wanted to earn enough money so that his wife did not have to work and struggle to clothe their daughter and to put food on the table. He became angry about the "self-righteousness and hypocrisy of many Muslims," the "don't do this and don't do that brigade," as he put it. He wanted what I wanted. He wanted a just and good life and to worship his God without hassle. That's all, he said, though we both know that was actually asking quiet a lot in this world. I told him it all sounded very familiar, that there were Christians who wanted me to be like them, just like them, and when I did not comply, confrontation was followed by rejection, and sometimes hatred. I told him I could not remember the number of times I had been called the anti-christ by my brothers and sisters in faith. And that he found funny!

In apparent contradiction Musti bemoaned the fact that Istanbul was becoming more "secularised" and "liberated." It is a sad irony, he thought,  that so often religion does not bring liberation but restriction, while liberation brings the loss of religious commitment and passion. When we had finished our apple tea he said: "I just want to worship and make money and be left alone. I just want my little girl to be OK." I never saw him again.

Copyright © 2010 Dale Rominger

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