“I’m coming to Istanbul in July. Will you be around? Can we get together?” she asked in her letter, which I read with trembling hands.
If I had occasionally been a lonely bachelor in college, I was five times as lonely in Istanbul all the time.
Olivia, a Radcliffe girl I had dated a few times in college, was for me the Impossible Dream, a girl too beautiful, smart, well-bred and personable ever to fall into my arms. Would I get another chance?
Can we get together? By osmosis if you want.
Olivia was traveling with a friend, and asked if I could meet them at the airport.
“We hear all these stories of young women arriving at the airport in Istanbul and being abducted by local romeos,” she wrote.
It hurt my pride that she wasn’t afraid I’d abduct her. Was I not a romeo? Apparently not, or at least not as titillatingly sinister as a Turkish romeo.
She arrived on the daily Pan Am flight from New York on July 20th. I dutifully met her and her friend at the airport and escorted them to their hotel, leading them bravely through the surging crowds of Turkish romeos who thronged the arrivals terminal in their imagination.
The next evening Olivia and her friend came to my apartment. I served them drinks and a simple dinner, and we sat on my balcony, talked, laughed, and non-looked at my non-view of the Bosphorus. It was delightful, but her company only made me want more of her company. As they were getting ready to leave, her friend went off to the bathroom and I asked Olivia if she’d like to go to a party. Not just any party, a Turkish sünnet (circumcision) party. Not just anyone’s circumcision party, the circumcision party for the son of Yener, Istanbul’s King of the Hippies.
She loved the idea!
Despite his unconventional hippy sympathies, Yener was a good family man with a comely wife and stout nine-year-old son. Before Olivia arrived he had invited me to his son’s sünnet, and I had accepted.
Circumcision? Let’s Party!
Circumcision is minor surgery in which the foreskin covering the head of the penis is surgically removed. It’s done on many male babies regardless of religion to enhance cleanliness and prevent infection, but it’s a religious requirement for Jewish boys at birth, and Muslim boys of nine or ten as a right of passage into puberty.
For Muslims, it’s a cause for great celebration similar to confirmation or first communion for Christians and bar mitzvah for Jews. Before the operation, the Muslim lad is dressed in a special fancy suit of white satin with red decorations and paraded around the town with all his friends and relatives to the strains of wild music often provided by a live band. After the operation, which only takes a few minutes, the proud parents host a big party for all their relatives and friends.
I had never been to a sünnet party so I wasn’t sure what to expect, and I couldn’t describe it to Olivia either, but I felt sure that whatever a sünnet party was it would be better–certainly no worse–with a gorgeous blonde on my arm. I took a bus to Sultanahmet, picked up Olivia from her hotel, and took her by taxi (damn the expense!) to Beyazit Square.
The party was in a spacious function room at the Beyaz Saray, a big multi-purpose building facing the tall stone gates of Istanbul University. We entered the building, followed the music and found two bands, one Turkish, the other Western, tables laden with food and drink, and most surprising of all Yener the hippie cookshack owner dressed in a suit.When he saw us he rushed over, his face split in a wide grin. He hugged us, shook our hands and pulled us into the room.
“Masallah! Masallah! Look, it’s Tom Bey! And who’s this? Olivia? Olivia Hanim! Hos geldin! Hos geldin! Come meet my wife! Meet my son! Come! Come! Eat! Drink! Dance!”
The high-ceilinged room was filled with Turkish men in conservative suits, Turkish women in stylish dresses, and a disreputable-looking handful of hippies, regular customers from Yener’s restaurant dressed in tattered jeans, buckskin and beads. Yener had invited some hippy friends out of the goodness of his heart and the traditions of Turkish hospitality. They looked about as comfortable as transvestites at an army physical.
Olivia and I got in line and paid our respects to his son, a sweet boy who lay in a fancy brass bed under a satin coverlet on one side of the dance floor looking vaguely in pain, shyly happy and mostly bewildered–not all that bad for a nine-year-old who had just had the tip of his penis whacked off by a bearded old man muttering holy formulas.
Uh-oh. A table by his bed was cluttered with gifts. I was supposed to have brought a gift! How was I to know? I grabbed a gift off the table behind my back, whipped it out and showed it to him before placing it gently back on the table. He smiled. We moved on to the buffet and drinks tables laden with goodies.
None of Yener’s beans-and-rice here!Dozens of Turkish delicacies covered the snow-white tablecloth….
The Turkish band took a break; the Western band struck up a dance tune. Yener rushed over to us.
“Dance! Dance! You must dance!” he exulted, dragging us onto the floor and pushing us together. A few Turkish couples were dancing but the floor was mostly empty, a state of affairs which Yener obviously considered reprehensible. The band was playing! This was a party! Dance! Yener would have danced for us but I wanted to make my own moves on Olivia.
Despite years of childhood lessons which I cordially hated, or perhaps because of them, I am a lousy dancer. My sense of rhythm is entirely intellectual, and it translates only awkwardly into physical motion. Luckily Olivia didn’t seem to mind. Actually, it was pretty nice holding her slender waist even while shuffling like a walrus in a swamp. In fact, I soon forgot I was a walrus. Nothing mattered except the feeling of her waist in my right hand and her fingers in my left, and the mysterious communication coming from deep within her eyes.
We danced. We ate and drank. We knew no one else at the party. Most of the others were from Yener’s extended family, and spoke only Turkish. The hippies looked more lost than we did. So we chatted as best we could over the loud music, and I drank in as much as I could of Olivia.
She was a good sport about all this. After the first half hour and a good scoping of the scene it must have been flat-out boring for her, but she exhibited relaxed fortitude, which only made me want her more. She was patient, strong, serene. Actually, I was ready to leave too, breathless to find out what might happen between us after we left the party. The only thing holding us there was Yener and our debt of courtesy to him, but after a few hours had passed we decided the debt had been paid and it was time to go. We found Yener, thanked him, said our good-byes.
“No! No! You can’t leave! The party’s just starting! Eat! Drink! Dance! You can’t go!”
We danced. Our feet got tired, then more tired, then turned to lumps of aching flesh. By now the walrus had cut a wide, ugly swath through the swamp and was ready to rest on his rock. It was getting late. It really was time to go.
“If we seriously wanna get outta here, we’re gonna have to dance out the door,” I whispered into Olivia’s delicious ear….
(Excerpts from Turkey: Bright Sun, Strong Teacopyright © 2004, 2005 by Tom Brosnahan. All rights reserved.)
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