Sultan Groucho, Molotov Cocktails and Little Furry Bandits
So, apparently I’ve been terrifying relatives with my stories of political demonstrations and persecuted journalists, and now every time the Western media actually bothers to report about something happening in this here country they worry for my safety. All I can tell them is that there are no Jihadis outside my apartment, only feral roosters. That said, I have no knowledge of their religious inclinations or any possible extremist affiliations, but judging by their behavior and constant crowing they very well may be a think tank for MHP.
Some People Actually Take Travel Warnings Seriously
My relatives are actually relatively laid back compared to some other exchange students I’ve gotten to know. Quite a few of them have had their parents personally escort them to the city, some as an excuse to do some tourism, others to see if “Istanbul was ‘sketchy’”. They’ve been given warnings “not to come home Muslim” and not to get themselves kidnapped (okay, there is a tiny but legitimate risk of this actually happening-a friend of a friend was actually trapped in a dolmuş by a driver who declared her to be his new girlfriend until she screamed at him in Turkish to let her out), and reminded that “ISIS is right outside the city” or something to that effect. Me, I’ve just been told that if I must meet my sevgili in this city, “make sure she’s a nice Christian girl”. Sure thing, auntie, but I don’t know which cafe all six of them meet at yet.
Actually, due to the recent violent protests in Istanbul, many American parents here are terrified their baby is being forced to dodge Molotov cocktails on the way to school. Normally I’d take this as an opportunity to make fun of these overly protective mommies and daddies, but their concerns aren’t entirely baseless-yesterday I had a conversation with a German exchange student who got a face full of tear gas after getting caught between violent protesters and riot police out on Istiklal (apparently the police here shoot tear gas directly into the crowd), and out here in Etiler I’ve had to slink past platoons of armored cops, who’ve become increasingly adept at breaking up any student demonstration minutes before they begin. It’s gotten to the point that the US embassy in Ankara has warned all of us to essentially stay away from any district south of Levent-or in other words, two-thirds of the city. Problem is, their advice is so last year-no one wants to go Taksim and get shot at as soon as you get a good chant going, so we Americans are just as likely to witness demonstrations on campus or the wealthy neighborhoods surrounding it. But honestly, there’s really very little to worry about, provided you don’t insist on being an active participant in the protests.
A Whole Industry Based On Traveling Westerners’ Annoying Tendencies
But thankfully, many parents of the exchange students here have learned through their children that Istanbul is not actually a city of turbaned men riding camels through the streets and women in burqas haggling at bazaars over individual grapes with male escorts leading the way, and, newly illuminated, now acknowledge that the country is not some giant 7th century “Caliphate Nostalgia” theme park. I think our knowledge of the country has actually regressed since the Ottoman era. I mean, hasn’t anyone at least seen From Russia With Love? However, Turks are not unwilling to play up the stereotypes and caricatures around the tourist sites in order to persuade foolish or shallow tourists into posing for expensive photos with a “Pasha” or “concubine” and buying overpriced souvenirs and “authentic Ottoman cuisine” which is often really just standard-fare kebap served in a restaurant that decorates its walls with mass-produced calligraphy (you pay double for the ambiance). Perhaps these guys laugh about it after work and hope the yabancılar never wise up and realize or care that they’re being robbed blind. I must say, nothing reminds me more of the importance of Study Abroad than seeing some guy switching out his 49ers snapback for a velour fez while taking photos of his wife wearing an “I (Heart) Istanbul” tank top in front of the Hagia Sophia posing with some “sultan” with a striking resemblance to Groucho Marx in a red robe gripping a plastic scimitar. It’s not that I don’t have a sense of humor-I get the joke, but why pay to be a part of it? Of course, we return the favor by convincing Turks that American fast food and lattes, readily available at Turkish büfes and many normal cafes are worth paying premiums for because Starbucks provides that authentic, Western-style quality product that couldn’t possibly be emulated by any Turk, save for those who undergo the rigorous training necessary to become part of the hallowed Order of the Green Apron. Don’t laugh. How often have you or someone you know blew their paycheck on worthless shi…nola simply because the packaging was labeled in French or Italian?
The Little Outlaws of Istanbul
But no, we exchange students are in no danger of falling victim to extremist ideologies in Istanbul, save for when Beşiktas is playing and we’re dumb enough to go outside with Galatasaray colors. However, the city is in the midst of an invasion-an immense occupying force fill our streets and homes, and the Boğazıçı campus is a hotbed for their predatory and parasitic activities. This nefarious force is tolerated by the government, the police, the courts, the media and even the general public, from the ultranationalists all the way to the socialist fringe. Why?
Because they’re adowwable.
What? This is a fluff piece, and there’s a million big balls of them wandering all over the place. Turkey is a giant spinster and one simply cannot escape her many, many pets. Seriously, I’ve had to chase bobcats out of my living room. They were bothering the two smaller ones my roommate adopted, which is a nice way of saying she grabbed them off campus and fed them until Stockholm syndrome set in. What, there’s no law against it…
So, why are there so many of these pygmified lions and tigers in the country? Because stray cats and dogs are not exterminated in Turkey, and there is no money to build shelters to house them for adoption, which thanks to people like my roommate are unnecessary in the first place. For a long time, nothing was done about them, but after ten centuries of “Ow you little (redacted) you bit me!” it was decided that the best thing to do was to tag them, bag them, stab them with vaccines and release them back on the street. Not that they still don’t bite, the little (redacteds). One little kamineko sent me to the campus clinic at one am, where I was very impressed at the quickness and efficiency of the care. Guy took care of me for free and had me on my way in ten minutes. Didn’t bother me at all that he didn’t speak a word of English or that he looked at me like I was wearing a tutu and pigtails when I told him why I’d come. Okay, it bothered me a little. But it was free and fast, two adjectives we in the Greatest Country Evar never associate with clinics.
I believe one cat snacked on my Turkish teacher back home, giving her a lifelong fear of felines and may have even provided her with some impetus for coming to America. I have actually met a few Turks who are quite terrified of them, probably due to some similar childhood trauma, or because the cats on campus are the worst type of panhandlers, leaping off of ledges to snatch your poğaça (a filled bun) right when your back is turned or invading the cafeterias and even lecture halls, fearlessly shaking down the student body and shamelessly moaning until someone feeds them or chases them off with the only weapon we have-water spray. Funny thing is, every ailurophobic Turk I’ve met is kind of embarrassed about it, as if their fears somehow went against their genetic coding or something.
Notably, the cat population is less thoroughly controlled than dogs, and are allowed to multiply almost unchecked. Why? Probably because it’s a pain in the backside to catch them, and they are the single best controller of the rat population. Some also say it’s a religious thing. It is true that, believe it or not, the Prophet Muhammad was a huge Cat Person. One hadith records that he loved them to the point that when one cat fell asleep on his sleeve, he cut it off rather than wake it. I guess since I tend to (gently) throw around our cats when they sit on the book I’m reading or on the computer right when I’m starting to type I’m not properly adhering to Sunnah. Oh, don’t pity them. If you knew how many times they’ve scratched me or defecated on my personal affects you’d want to play quarterback with them too.