- Brian M Winningham
April in Istanbul
April glanced nervously left and right. The hot and airless street was mostly deserted, just a skinny dog circling over a shady spot and finally settling. A door slammed behind her and she felt the eyes behind the curtains laughing as she almost jumped out of her skin.
“God this was so stupid,” April muttered. She decided to go toward her right and the dog. He looked pretty harmless and was the first being she encountered who hadn’t shunned her like she had the plague. In fact, the dog completely ignored her. “You sure love Americans here, don’t you?” she spat at the dog, who only raised an eye at the voice and just as quickly shut it.
This was her first trip to Turkey, and she had been here only two days. When she started her trek that morning, she had been confident she would be able to see the Hagia Sofia, a famous mosque in Istanbul, from anywhere in the city. From her current vantage point, she could only see dusty stone and plaster houses in every direction. April’s confidence was beginning to melt in the heat. She was feeling not just lost, but alien and unwanted. She had gotten up early this morning and left the hostel without telling anyone and was feeling extremely stupid for that. She began her walk relishing her aloneness and now the loneliness was a heavy pack cutting into her shoulders.
April hailed from Seattle and was a bit of a free spirit with an independent streak a mile long and five miles wide. At twenty-three years old, she hadn’t lived with her mom since she was 18. She had spent the last five years living from place to place, never putting down real roots, moving someplace new whenever the urge struck her. She had even spent time in several small towns across the south and had made some lifelong friends there. There was even a marriage to a small-town boy, who was as sweet and gentle and loving as she was carefree and craving adventure. The marriage barely lasted until the ink was dry on the license, both realizing their mistake almost immediately. She had heard he was married to a local girl with a baby on the way last year. While April imagined that maybe someday, she could find a home someplace like that, for now it was like trying to paint the roof of the Sistine Chapel on the head of a pin, she just couldn’t be contained by those small boundaries. It’s how she ended up here, lost in Istanbul. She had decided that travelling the world was her next adventure and she was starting here in Turkey.
April walked down the airless, narrow street, heading east, she thought. The streets were unnaturally empty and quiet for the early afternoon. On any Saturday afternoon growing up in Seattle, people would be out and about everywhere, rain or shine. Here the weather was warm, but sunny and no one was out-doors. It wasn’t until about 10:30 or 11:00 o’clock that she realized today was the Sabbath.
“No wonder these people shun me. Just another stupid American, acting like a barbarian,” she accused as she looked down a side street. There were what looked like the same faded plaster and stone houses she had been seeing all day but no mosque.
Her hostel sat just across the way and almost due east of the Blue Mosque as the Hagia Sophia is called because of the blue tiles used to decorate the walls of its interior. April was in Turkey to teach Turk children English as part of an independent study program. At this moment however, lost in a country where she knew only a few words of the native language, she wished she were home, among friends.
Even though she hadn’t lived there consistently in the last five years, Seattle was still home. Always happy enough with just her own company, she nevertheless had a group of about eight people who thought enough like her for April to consider them friends and surrogate family. She met most of them watching grunge bands in the local bars when they could sneak in as kids. Some of those bands were now starting to become famous as grunge became more popular. This was her tribe and where she felt like she fit in best. A tall young woman of almost 5’9”, her close-cropped hair was so darkly auburn as to look purple in the sun. Men found it easy to talk to her and she knew they thought she was cool. The nose ring and sleeve of tattoos caused them to look but she didn’t care. Indifference was her shield. Always independent, she picked the men she wanted, not trusting them to choose first.
Discouraged, April moved further down the street. She was so deep in her memories that at first, she didn’t notice the breeze that began to gently twine her black dress around her legs. It was a big surprise that almost stopped her in her tracks when she noticed the smell on the wind. Water. Looking up at the river in front of her, she thought, “Surely, this is the river that runs by the marketplace near the hostel. That means I need to go left to find my way home. Hope secured a toehold on the mountain of her fears as she came to the edge of a hill and could see the spires of the great mosque straight down the road in front of her. She started down the empty street with the river on her right.
The marketplace was at the bottom of the hill where it was coolest. April could feel the cool air wafting up at her. Her downhill journey reinforced with a fresh breeze and a light heart at no longer being lost, she was all but skipping as she reached the bottom of the hill. Suddenly four men with machine guns were blocking her path.
A small squeal flung itself from her throat as she tried to immediately stop her forward momentum. The soldiers spreading their arms in the universal symbol for stop as she regained control just before running into the men. She assumed they were soldiers, as all were wearing the same green fatigues, berets and black military style boots. They also had black military style rifles that looked huge to her right now, although none were pointed directly at her.
“Ohgod-ohgod-ohgod.” She wailed in her mind, willing herself not to move or scream out loud. “Where did they come from?” She looked down at the ground wondering what to do. “What do I do? Call for help? Yeah right, who would even understand me? Run? No! They all have guns!”
“English?” one of them finally asked, taking a half-step toward her.
“American,” she answered, her mouth feeling as if it was full of sand. Perspiration tickled down her back, despite the cool shade of the bottom of the hill.
“Papers, please.” He extended his hand toward her.
Gaining some ground on her fear, she looked up at him and handed him her passport. “He is beautiful,” she thought, seeing his dark, brown eyes beaming at her. His beret was rakishly cocked, almost covering his right eye completely. As he looked down at her passport, she took the chance to study him a little more closely. Like the others, he wore green suspenders and a wide green web belt with a canteen on his left hip and an ammunition pouch on his right hip with a larger pouch hung on the back of the belt. The young man was about six feet tall, thin and hard looking, with a dark complexion and a heavy beard shading his jawline.
He looked up from her papers and smiled straight through her eyes and into her soul. She felt instantly less alone in this foreign place for reasons she hadn’t yet sought to try and understand. She felt that this was the first friendly face she had seen since arriving. Hope came calling, banishing her recent fears temporarily.
“It is dangerous to be alone on the street. Not everyone here is fond of your country.” He said simply. “We will escort you to your hostel. What is the name?”
“I am at the Constantine, right over there.” She pointed just to the left of the spires of the great mosque, reaching up like columns supporting the sky. The began walking in the direction she pointed, with the soldier and April leading the way, while the other soldiers followed behind them in pairs.
“April,” he said, making it rhyme with quill, “is that not a month of the year?”
“Yes, the fourth month. My name is pronounced April.” Her face turned slightly red, but she smiled at him anyway.
“April,” he correctly repeated this time, “it is a beautiful name. Are you from California?
“California?” she asked a little confused.
“Where do you live in the United Sates?” He frowned in concentration, trying to be sure of articulating correctly. He seemed a little less sure of himself to her at this point.
“Oh, I am from Seattle, Washington. It is on the west coast, north of California and Oregon. What is your name?” She enunciated slowly, as if in sympathy for his difficulty, without even realizing she was doing it.
“I am Amil. I come from Izmir, on the Aegean,” he said, seeming to regain some confidence with this assertation. “My family are all fishers men. No, that is not right… fishermen. All the men in my history fish for work, and always have.” He paused and smiled into the distance. “I think I will do something different though. I will be an Engineer”
“Your English is very good. Have you been to America?” she asked as they stopped in front of her hostel. Amil turned and said something she didn’t understand to the other soldiers, who simply nodded at her and moved on down the street continuing their patrol.
“No, I haven’t been to America. I learned to speak English in school. Your English is very good also.” He grinned. “I have no duties tomorrow. Would you care to walk with me? I could show you many beautiful places in this city.”
“That would be great,” she said a little breathless.
“I will meet you here at 1:00 o’clock if that is okay. Only if you are sure.” He trailed off.
She smiled back at him like a sun beam, then suddenly turned and disappeared into her hostel.
He caught his patrol mates in the marketplace. They ribbed him good naturedly about his new foreign girlfriend. Sounding sharper than he intended, Amil’s best friend teased him, “The rich American woman wants to sleep with you, doesn’t she?”
“There is no humor in what you say, Hakeem!”
“But she is free, and she is American, Amil. You have seen the television, just as I have.”
“You believe in television too much, little brother.” He changed the subject, “It is time we were back. The next patrol goes out at three. The sergeant will have us out again tonight and probably all weekend if we are late.”
They had ten minutes but needed to hurry to make it on time. They had been much harder pressed in the past, once having to sprint two miles. It wasn’t exactly a punishment to be put Hakeem and Amil’s patrol, but their section sergeant certainly never let them forget how close they came to being late. Aside from coming right up against being fashionably late, at least to military standards, Sergeant Fadiz was very proud of their record, even though very careful not to show it too much.
Amil was one month from finishing his two-year conscription and Hakeem was seven months from the end of his term. They were both from Izmir and had several common acquaintances but had never met until Hakeem joined Amil’s section. They became fast friends and were almost constantly together both on duty and off.
A year into Amil’s tour, his section was patrolling on a Greek island near Limnos. The Turks and Greeks were having the usual troubles over land and who owns it. The fighting between them seemed to escalate every few years and the tensions remained eternal. On their last patrol, Amil’s section was ambushed by local forces. Hakeem was slightly wounded in the hand and thigh with the first shots. Three other men also dropped to the ground more seriously wounded, and their section leader at the time Sergeant Yildiz was dead, shot in the face.
Hakeem and Amil managed to pull the three wounded men into a gully, out of the line of fire. Amil fired at the attackers, while Hakeem began first aid. The section rallied and began to counterfire on the treeline 150 meters away that was the enemy position. Once the section’s automatic weapons opened fire and began talking, the disorganized guerillas fled, firing over their shoulders as they ran away. Several fell as they ran and didn’t rise again.
The two friends were decorated, and both were reassigned to the relatively easy patrol duty they now performed. The street patrols in a friendly city were much better than beating the bush and sleeping on the ground. “Yes,” Amil decided, “street patrols were much better than island duty. There were no American women on the islands.”
- - - - - -
The patrol reported back to Sergeant Fadiz with two minutes to spare. Hakeem made the report for the squad. He told the seargeant about meeting the American (presumed tourist or student) and escorting her back to her hostel (the Constantine.) Otherwise, there was nothing else to report from their patrol. After the report, the whole patrol was released. They didn’t have any duties until the day after next. They cleaned up and went to their dorms to read or to sleep. Even though their Army duties superseded, today was still the Sabbath. The Army was a boring life mostly (at least away from the islands) and every young Turk had to serve and do their part. Amil was certainly happy to almost be done with his two-year term.
Early the next morning on his day off, Amil dressed and ate quickly so he could catch the early bus to his brother’s home near Istanbul University where he was a professor. Kayim treated Amil well and expected him to live in his home with his wife and young children. Amil hoped to attend college for Engineering when he was through with the Army. Their time together, while Amil was at university, was something they both were looking forward to.
Amil was met by Kayim at the door of his home. Amil bowed slightly and said, “Hello brother, I hope your house is well.”
Kayim kissed his brother and invited him in. “It is good to see you, little brother. Will you have some tea with me in the garden?”
They walked through the cool, dark house, with thick plaster walls painted in hues of dark blue and light grey. It was furnished by the University and considered part of Kayim’s income. It was a welcome perk for someone in Kayim’s position. The reached the garden and sat on a small patio in the morning sun, a small table between them. There was a tray of fruit and sliced sweet date bread as well as a pot of aromatic Turkish tea. Smelling the tea as Kayim poured their cups, Amil was reminded of his home and their dead father. The tea blend was Kayim’s favorite and had been their father’s favorite as well. They both began to eat.
“I have news for you, Amil!” Kayim beamed. “I have secured your spot and you will take the placement exams in the fall. How do your studies go? Will you be ready?”
“They go mostly fine. I still have problems with chemistry. It’s all the formulas. How does anyone ever memorize all of them?”
“I don’t know, that’s why I am a history teacher,” his brother joked. He was in fact a very well-respected professor of not just history but also anthropology. Tall and dark like his brother, Kayim’s eyes were green instead of the brown of Amil’s eyes. He was a very good-natured and gentle person. A little heavy set and frumpy looking like most professor stereotypes, Kayim always had a smile on his face and a kind word on his lips. He had been a surrogate father to Amil since their own father died when Amil was only two years old. They chatted about several things as they ate their meal, but nothing of any consequence.
“I met an American girl yesterday. She was lost and our patrol escorted her to her hostel,” Amil finally ventured softly, staring off into the distance.
“An American woman?” Kayim became serious. “What was she doing out, lost on the Holy Day?” a frown etching the corner of his eyes.
“I don’t know. She was lost.” Amil paused slightly, before rushing on. “Kayim, she was different. Not like the American women on television. She dressed differently and she did not giggle. She seemed very self-sufficient and unafraid,” he paused, looking far away again for just a few seconds as a grin stretched his face. “Well, she did scream a little when my patrol surprised her, but a little scream is not always a bad thing, eh big brother? Her name is April, and I am going to meet her in the city today and take her to see the sights. What do you think?” he rolled out in one continuous breath.
Kayim frowned down at his bread and said nothing.